It’s easy to get seduced by the sumptuous cinematography of “The Song of Scorpions,” but all that beauty becomes mere window-dressing since the script is too weak to support the potentially interesting story. Once again working with international producers after his narratively ambitious sophomore feature “Qissa,” director Anup Singh conjures up an Indian tale of a folk healer (played by Golshifteh Farahani) whose savior turns out to be the source of her trauma. Singh takes full advantage of Rajasthan’s desert beauties, keenly sensitive to contrasts of color and form, yet the visual feast shows up the anemic storytelling, modeled after timeless vengeance sagas but without their powerful clarity. Evidently made for Westerners (though Farahani is affecting, and learned Hindi for the occasion, Indians will wonder why a Persian actress was cast), “Scorpions” may struggle to find an audience.
Deadly scorpion bites are a problem in the rural villages of the Thar desert, which is why the healing powers of Nooran (Farahani, always bewitching) are so sought after. Taught by her grandmother Zubaida (legendary actress Waheeda Rehman) to use the power of song to coax the poison out, Nooran has a reputation for haughtiness which largely stems from a projection of independence. Camel trader Aadam (Irrfan Khan) is besotted; she good-naturedly counters his importuning, though he’s given a mild beating when some men feel he’s harassing her.
Shortly after, Aadam’s drunkard friend Munna (Shashank Arora) pretends to be bitten by a scorpion, and he rapes Nooran. When she gets back home, her grandmother is missing, and the double trauma robs her of her singing voice and, to an extent, her reason. Villagers ostracize her, but Aadam, a widower with a young daughter (Sara Arjun), offers to marry her. Nooran is no longer a pariah, but she discovers something about her new husband that makes her plan revenge.
When stripped down to these basics, Singh’s tale conveys the simplicity and directness of mythology, as if recovered from some time-honored fable. Characters are constructed with a few distinct traits that make them seem like figures from oral legend, but uncertain editing choices lead to narrative confusion. A few scenes in a brothel are just clumsy, and Aadam’s backstory requires some filling in for audiences to fully grasp his situation.
It’s also unclear whether Singh wants us to feel a certain sympathy for the man, even after learning his true nature, or if the director means to leave it up to the viewer how to react. Singh’s previous work is unambiguously feminist, and Nooran’s strength of character is seen in a positive light, yet given the frequency with which rape in India hits even international news, one wishes the script offered a little more clarity in how it colors in grey areas.
In terms of visuals, colors aren’t a problem at all, and the Thar desert landscape (also notably used in “Paheli”) is gloriously lensed by Swiss cinematographers Pietro Zuercher and Carlotta Holy-Steinemann. From the very start, with Farahani’s black-clad figure against the earth’s golden browns, and shortly thereafter, when villagers walking on a ridge are silhouetted against a pale blue sky, we know the film’s rewards lie in the photography. Worth pointing out is a giant close up of Farahani and Khan soon after Nooran realizes her husband’s deceit: With his face speckled with granules of salt after a desert ride, she sensually licks them off, taking control of the situation with a mixture of seduction and menace. Traditional songs by Madan Gopal Singh also help to distract from scripting problems.