To describe the intentions of Leon Desclozeaux as ambitious in “Chittagong: The Last Stopover” would be doing the French-born helmer a disservice. Making the first Western feature shot in politically troubled Bangladesh, during the height of the country’s merciless monsoon season no less, he undoubtedly faced logistical struggles that made “Waterworld” seem like child’s play. But while Desclozeaux overcame these technical obstacles, and finished product is as visually stunning as its milieu is unwieldy, he fails at the fundamentals of storytelling. His characters are underdeveloped (thanks in no small part to a cast of overmatched non-pros), and the film’s central romance is so lacking in electricity that it makes a $3 dollar Hallmark card seem sexy in comparison.
Trouble arises at outset with the first sample of the omnipresent voiceover: While ostensibly the Bengali street urchin at the center of the picture is telling the story, the voice itself sounds like it belongs to a fey English schoolboy describing a month in the country.
Action begins when ship captain Paul (Julien Maurel) is told to run his steamer aground in Chittagong, a Bangladesh port city where old ships are cut up into scrap metal; shots of the junkyard filled with dozens of giant ships are awesome. In Chittagong, Paul’s identity papers are stolen, so he sets toward the capital of Dhaka, presumably to find a way out of the country.
But he abandons his plan when he happens upon Alima (Suchona), a perpetually sick widowed mother, and Moti (Billal Mia), her bright-eyed and curious child, and decides to follow them to their remote tribal village, Rulipara. Neither the writing nor acting makes clear why Paul goes with them; there is only the faint sense that Paul feels his destiny is somehow linked to Alima’s. Though the tribal chieftain forces Alima out of the village because of her connection to the mysterious Westerner, their relationship couldn’t be tamer or less dynamic.
The rains begin at pic’s midpoint, and for remainder of the film it seems that the entire countryside is under at least 3 feet of water. Camera captures images that could rank alongside the best of National Geographic. When Paul and Alima boat to the nearest city to escape the rain, they spot a cow chewing cud on a mound of dirt no bigger then itself; it’s the only dry land for miles.
That the filmmakers overcame so many technical challenges makes all the more frustrating the fact that every time someone acts or speaks, the results are eye-rollingly amateurish. It would be easy to blame the cast of untrained actors (some of whom are better then others, all of them amazing to look at), but the real problem is a script filled with stiff lines and unspecified motivations. Couldn’t one of the five credited writers come up with a single good line?
Still, even with its numerous dramatic flaws, “Chittagong” provides a particular sort of portrait of the people of Bangladesh, with breathtaking vistas that even the most adventurous Western traveler will probably never lay eyes on in real life.