A few minutes into Deepa Mehta’s Earth, when a little girl drops a plate and it shatters to the ground, the child asks her mother, “Can one break a country?” The year is 1947, when a newly independent India split into Hindu and Muslim states. The divide between India and Pakistan forced one of the worst population upheavals in recorded history: 7 million Muslims and 5 million Hindus were driven from their homes, while 1 million people were killed in sectarian violence. It boggles the mind, therefore, when historical fact alone speaks so strongly, that Mehta feels compelled to twist the screw, shamelessly plying her audience with mawkish tropes wearing the garb of “innocence.”
The polio-hobbled girl, Lenny, belongs to a well-off family of Parsis, a group whose close ties to the British government and steadfast neutrality mostly spared them from the Partition massacres. Lenny’s gorgeous Hindu nanny, Shanta (Nandita Das), is courted by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs; daily outings to the park result in multireligious gatherings of suitors. As the political situation escalates, so does the tension within this loose-knit, aphorism-spewing group, culminating in a horrible betrayal.
Das bestows on Shanta the same grace and reserve that she brought to Mehta’s previous film, Fire (the first of a planned trilogy of films on India), which spurred controversy in India with its depiction of a lesbian romance. Fire was a clumsy effort burdened by easy symbolism, but Mehta’s camerawork was admirably restrained, her script taciturn. The same control is simply not present in Earth, right down to its oversaturated cinematography: from the lurid reds and purples coloring a tableau of bloodied bodies on a train car, to the warm yellow glow suffusing every household scene, Mehta has made a film at once exploitative and nostalgic. When Lenny encounters an impoverished Muslim boy who tells her that his parents were killed and his sister was raped, he asks her in the same breath, “Want to play marbles?” One audience member in the screening room responded to this scene with a tittering sound—somewhere between a giggle and an “Aww.” Nothing in Earth suggests that Mehta would find this an inappropriate reaction to her film.
– Kicking and screaming for inappropriate reactions of any kind is the wannabe–cult movie Lucinda’s Spell, a pillowcore mishmash of catfights, covens, and frustrated mother love. Out to win a spell contest and win back custody of her son, the eponymous prostitute and sometime witch is played by Christina Fulton, who chicken-stomps her way through the role with Elizabeth Berkley–esque gusto. Lucinda’s willing and able, but the movie bearing her name is a cold cocktease, fettered by a surfeit of story and a disgraceful dearth of sex. Reverse the plot-to-shtup ratio and you’d have yourself a boffo porno with some posh set design and fabulous costumes, and then you’d be getting somewhere.