Written by Anna Harrison
Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show opens with a thank you to people the director has likely never met: the Lumière brothers, Eadweard Muybridge, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Some of these names are familiar to the public at large, some less so, but all giants in the world of cinema, and Nalin’s thanks to them as the film opens sets the tone of love and reverence on display throughout Last Film Show, a beautifully shot ode to filmmaking and storytelling, told with care that practically bleeds through the screen (the irony that I watched this on my computer screen and not in a theater with a projector is not lost on me, don’t worry).
It’s hard, even knowing little about Nalin himself, not to view this film as an autobiography of sorts, but then again it could be an autobiography of sorts for anyone who has ever stared transfixed at a movie and wondered at what they were seeing. Last Film Show follows nine-year-old Samay (Bhavin Rabari), who, like so many of us before him, falls in love with the movies. Even if we can’t relate to his specific circumstances, we relate to the feeling, to the transcendence Samay feels as he holds his hand up to the projector light and watches the beams dance through his fingers. Samay’s father (Dipen Raval) disapproves, but Samay begins to sneak away from school and spend his afternoons with the Galaxy Cinema’s projectionist, Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali), giving Fazal food in exchange for knowledge and free movies. (The love for food is also quite evident in the film; movies tell stories one way, and food another.)
Samay becomes fascinated by the inner workings of the projector: the lights, the reels, the reflections. He finds broken bottles with colored glass and holds them up to his eyes, the world now filtered through blue, or red, or green. He uses a mirror to create light, watching it refract and bounce. “I want to become movies,” he says. Eventually, Samay ropes his friends into helping him build his own projector, using the knowledge that Fazal taught him to bring movie magic to his friends. Cinematographer Swapnil S. Sonawane makes all these scenes as beautiful as possible, and fills them with homages to other movies, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey. The monolith in Kubrick’s film awakens our ancestors’ consciousness; here, a movie does the same to Samay.
But Samay’s world comes tumbling down with the rise of digital photography, replacing his beloved film reels. There is a real melancholy here, the colors becoming stark and cold as the projector in Galaxy Cinema gets hauled away, replaced by a computer and a room with bleak white walls. The closeness that Samay felt holding the film in his hands, cutting it, winding it through the projector—it all fades. Last Film Show is all about transitions: Galaxy Cinema goes digital and Fazal loses his job, the train that runs through Samay’s town becomes electric and the town loses its train stop and thus Samay’s father loses his job, Samay goes from child to if not adult, then at least a child with his eyes opened to the uglier side of the world.
The gentle awe with which this film is imbued wanes somewhat in the third act, becoming replaced with slightly overwrought melodrama, and the pace quickens too rapidly from the steadiness of before. Yet Nalin crafts Last Film Show with such care and gentleness that even then you can’t help but feel like a kid again, watching a movie for the first time, or perhaps even those first theatergoers who believed the Lumière brothers’ train was going to come out of the screen and into their seats. It’s nostalgic, but not stuck in the past, as the ending voiceover reminds us: the film that Samay watched burn gets turned into bangles, and so the stories of Spielberg, of Ozu, of Eisenstein all live on, even as their medium changes.
Maxim Gorky, upon seeing his first film—that famous train from the Lumières—cried that cinema was “the Kingdom of Shadows,” forever resting on the edge between real and unreal; Fazal in Last Film Show explains that “movies were invented to con people.” Yet even if the films themselves are lies, what we feel from them are undoubtedly, achingly true, and Nalin lets Last Film Show reminds us of that.
Last Film Show Trailer