Water (Deepa Mehta, 2005), Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)

Not impressed with Deepa Mehta. Thought Fire was softcore porn (and pretty lukewarm porn, at that); thought Bollywood Hollywood a travesty of the Indian musical, compared to Dutt, Kapoor, and the like. Water (2005) may be her best and most coherent work yet, and it's still unsatisfying.

It's a great subject too, more's the pity: the treatment of widows in India during the 1930s and earlier is a tragedy, and it would help to present that tragedy as it appeared, without a modern-day consciousness in the form of an ultrahandsome Bollywood actor to pass judgement on the mores of the time. "It's economics," he declares near the end of the film, when asked why this happens; maybe it would be more useful to ask that question at the beginning of the film, and trace the various answers to their various bitter ends.

Would also help if the characters are more intelligent. The pretty widow rented out to old men to help support the ashram should have had the sense to ask just who the handsome man's father is; the handsome man should have had the sense to ask just why the pretty widow is able to keep her hair long in a convent full of short-haired women, and so forth. Maybe the best performance is by one of the widows, who begins to have motherly feelings for the little girl who begins the story--at least hers isn't an obvious tale of innocence corrupted or evil tradition attempting to preserve itself, but somewhere in between.

What else? Cy Endfield's Zulu (1964) is a terrific film. It neither condescends to nor demonizes the Zulus--they are terrifying and mysterious, but they have their reasons for attacking, even a sense of humor. The film unfussily gives us the tactics of both sides (the Zulus do clever feints and do not hesitate to exploit weaknesses; the British, though it's never explained, are smart to stay where they are and rely on an inner and outer redoubt instead of running away (where they could get hunted down and killed), or seeking higher ground (where they would have a difficult time building high defensive walls, run out of food and ammo, eventually be hunted down and killed)). It's also an excellent essay on how relationships between men warp or hold fast under stress, depending on the quality of the men involved (these are some fine specimens, apparently). Excellent performances from everyone, especially Michael Caine as a foppish officer undergoing his baptism of fire, and Stanley Baker as a military engineer doing something a tad beyond his field of experience.

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