The Himalayas provide a spectacular backdrop, but the human drama in the foreground is a bit flat in “Land of the Gods.” Goran Paskaljevic’s first non-Serbian-focused film, since the Irish “How Harry Became a Tree” 15 years ago, is a collaboration with star/co-writer Victor Banerjee set in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand (until recently known as Uttaranchal). The magnificent locations add to the movie’s intriguing, meditative atmosphere. Yet this tale of a prodigal son’s return after four decades’ exile ekes out its modest narrative mysteries in awfully slow-moving fashion, en route to a resolution that is not particularly surprising or powerful.
Having paid a talkative cabbie to drive him far into the mountains, Rahul (Banerjee) abandons his ride seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Though he’s carrying only an overnight bag, he has no apparent intention of returning to civilization — after crossing a pedestrian bridge over a gorge, he tosses his cell phone into the river below. Upon reaching a remote village, he sets the population buzzing, for most of those old enough to remember him assumed he was long dead.
Four decades earlier, Rahul had disappeared amid a scandal that still raises hackles, though the script is in no hurry to spell out its details. We glean soon enough, however, that it involved a romance between Rahul and a local girl that was judged inappropriate, with the resulting conflicts leading to violence and tragedy.
Most townspeople consider Rahul’s return bad news, though only his own unforgiving elder brother (Avijit Dutt) is openly hostile. A few villagers do welcome him, including widowed sister Priya (Uttara Baokar), old friend Balbir (V.K. Sharma), and the priest (S.P. Mamgain) who lets him stay at the monastery. There’s also young schoolteacher Shaanti (Geetarjali Thapa), whose progressive ways the village remains reluctant to adopt, particularly as education makes girls like her best student, Asha (Priya Sharma), more resistant to arranged marriages. Also taking a shine to the returnee is winsome orphan Munna (Ambar Kant), who not long ago lost his entire family in a flash flood — just one of the many natural disasters that regularly strike this beautiful but hazardous part of the world.
Beyond Asha’s unwanted nuptials, not much happens as Ruhal ambles around to reacquaint himself with the area and its denizens. At last the full story behind his exile emerges, amid a sort of village tribal council to determine whether he’s still (or ever was) guilty of some crime or other. The revelations aren’t all that striking in and of themselves, nor do they illustrate the old-fashioned ills of traditional caste and gender roles in ways that are unexpected or potent enough to reward the long, slack wait we’ve had to endure for them to arrive.
Banerjee brings considerable presence to the table as usual, but this may be a case where an actor with a hand in devising his own vehicle short-shrifts everything else (including narrative and character development) in the belief that personal charisma alone will suffice. Nonetheless, the co-mingled pro and non-pro performers in supporting roles are effective enough.
Graceful if a bit inert, “Land” is always handsome to look at, with longtime Paskaljevic collaborator Milan Spasic’s widescreen lensing of the remote locations inevitably highlighting the production package.