A ruthless swordsman in the wilds of Rajasthan lays down his steel and heads for the Himalayas in “The Warrior,” an existential Eastern story that’s a real eyeful on the big sheet. One of the more interesting new British pics at this year’s Edinburgh festival, this first feature by TV director Asif Kapadia shows a good grasp of widescreen values and thoughtful spins on genre material from Sergio Leone to samurai movies. However, its tendency to go for art rather than action, and a leisurely pace (even at 85 minutes) that isn’t bolstered by much dialogue or food for thought, looks likely to limit returns to upscale situations, topped up by the curious among Hindi communities worldwide.
Pic’s abstract tone, against a realist backdrop, is signaled in the opening titles, which show the warrior, Lafcadia (Irfan Khan), working out with his sword against a painterly landscape of sand dunes and a single, gnarled tree. The era is never specified, and could be any time during the past 50 years.
Lafcadia works for a seedy local despot (Anupam Shyam), performing public beheadings and teaching villagers to toe the line. On one outing with his men, to wipe out a community that’s late with its taxes, Lafcadia is stopped in the middle of the slaughter by an apparition of a young girl amid snowcapped peaks.
In a dramatic leap that really needs much more background, Lafcadia cuts his long locks and swears never to lift a sword again. In retaliation, the despot orders his house burned and his son (Puru Chhibber) arrested. After witnessing the public execution of his son, Lafcadia sets out across the semi-desert terrain toward the mountains to track down the girl and location revealed to him in the apparition.
En route, he teams up with a young thief (Noor Mani) who’s escaped from a stone quarry work team. But even in the pine-laden slopes of the Himalayas, the despot’s men are in close pursuit, led by the evil Biswas (Firoz Khan).
The deliberately laconic script, by Kapadia and academic Tim Miller (from London’s Royal College of Art, where Kapadia studied filmmaking), aims for a kind of magical realism against remote, striking visuals. Roman Osin’s lensing certainly delivers on the latter, contrasting the ochre, sun-blasted deserts with the cooler tones of the Himalayan foothills — all greens and grays — as well as some nicely textured interiors and facial close-ups along the way. In addition, Adrian Smith’s production design and Louise Stjernsward’s costumes have a suitably worn-in quality without sacrificing their exotic flavor, giving the movie a handsome look.
It’s in the larger canvas that the picture ends up short, with an elliptical style that sometimes leaves the viewer bereft of information and a seeming unwillingness to dig deeper into the psychology of its main character. The closest the script comes to examining Lafcadia’s guilt over his past is when the young thief describes how a long-haired man once slew his family. Lafcadia simply looks conflicted and walks on. The film’s ending is also rather so-what after the long geographical buildup.
Dario Marianelli’s broad, Indian-tinged score elevates the visuals but could have done with some truly memorable themes to add emotional depth to the characters. Perfs are all fine, with the cast doing as much as can be done with their limited lines and, as the title warrior, Khan fills the screen with his sheer smoldering, physical presence.
An English-language version was also shot back-to-back with the Hindi one. Latter played the Edinburgh fest.