Based on a classic Bengali novel, a 1937 story of African adventure that today might get patronizingly typed today as a young-adult story, writer-director Kamaleswar Mukherjee’s handsome, slow-moving “Chander Pahar” (“Mountain of the Moon”) may strike some audiences as too naive and old-fashioned to generate much excitement. It’s a tale that was once thrilling, but the thrills seem to have evaporated. The film has been a hit in Bengal, where viewers know the source material; it opened Jan. 10 on 16 U.S. screens.
A winning young acorn known simply as Dev, a major star of Bengali popular cinema, effortlessly conveys the warmth and spirit of the story’s earnest young hero, Shankar Chowdhury. Bored stiff by small-town life, Shankar persuades an uncle who works for the British East Africa Railway to find him a job there as a station agent.
His post, in a rural territory called Nakura, doesn’t supply the quick fix of excitement Shankar was hoping for. It turns out to be even pokier than his dusty hometown; only one train comes through a day. Incurably restless, Shankar rides around the area, running into seeming danger that turn out to be minor: poisonous black mambas that slither slowly, colorful dancing Masai tribesmen with long spears who are downright gentlemanly. When a man-eater prowls the area of his station, stalwart Shankar does his duty by setting a trap in the Masai way, drenching himself with animal blood and leading the beast into an ambush.
Eventually, even these daily dangers begin to pale, and he quits his day job with the railway in order to set off deeper into the wilderness. The main quest at the center of the story is Shankar’s expedition, with a fiercely bearded Portuguese traveler, Diego Alvarez (Gerard Rudolf), to find the legendary diamond mines of the Mountains of the Moon, in the barren Richtersveld area of South Africa.
Additional challenges include climbing a sheer rock wall with his bare hands while being hissed at by snakes, and running like mad from a volcanic eruption in a nicely realized special-effects sequence. Less successful is an encounter with a seemingly mythical creature, the Bunyip, who turns out to be all too lumberingly real, rather like a walrus crossed with a sabertooth (the f/x in this bit are not quite as topnotch). On the last legs of his journey, Shankar visits cathedral-vaulted stalactite caves and trudges across the sands of the Kalahari.
The movie’s heart is clearly in the right place; writer-director Mukherjee honors his characters for being loyal and tolerant, and he clearly has a feeling for the beauty of the African countryside. He takes his camera and his plucky actors up one mountain after another, framing them against golden landscapes that seem to go on forever.
Gazing at these vistas, it’s pleasant to think that less than a century ago there were still places on Earth that seemed almost as terrifying to us in their emptiness as the surface of the moon; it’s certainly possible to feel nostalgia for a time when we still had a sense of irreducible wilderness. But Mukherjee’s straightforward travelogue imagery doesn’t succeed in conveying that strangeness, that sense of pushing far beyond the boundaries, that must have thrilled him when he read the story as a boy.
Author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was the great modern Bengali novelist who also wrote the books on which Satyajit Ray’s all-time classic Apu Trilogy was based. And there’s another connection: Ray, then a young graphic designer and illustrator, created the cover for the novel’s 1937 first edition. These are shivery resonances to attach to any book, or its film adaptation, but they don’t translate to the screen. Sometimes, perhaps, the things that delighted us in the past are best left there, where they will always be fresh.