The third film in Deepa Mehta’s element-themed trilogy, Water has become something of a cause clbre in the Toronto-based director’s native country of India. The year is 1938, and pious Hindu widows are forced by society to live out the remainder of their lives in austere ashrams. One young woman (Ray) tries to buck the system and, with the help of a recently widowed small child (newcomer Sarala) who can’t even remember the husband she married in infancy, attracts the attentions of a liberal Brahman (Abraham). The movie’s first attempt at production was forced to shut down in 2000, amid massive protests by Hindu fundamentalists and death threats against the filmmaker (Mehta eventually succeeded in shooting the film three years later in Sri Lanka).
Unfortunately, Water seldom lives up to its backstory. Abraham is never particularly believable (like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, his character seems to have been flown in from a different era), and the political subtext is never very interesting—the idea that widows shouldn’t be treated like prisoners is, after all, a pretty easy sell to art-cinema audiences in 2006. The tired script plods through a series of predictable revelations and melodramatic confrontations before devolving into herky-jerky incoherence. Mehta overdirects throughout—forcing the viewer’s eyes to “significant” details like the Abraham character’s portrait of Gandhi, and eventually drowns the film in gauzy soft-focus symbolism involving the titular substance. (Opens Fri.)—Joshua Land