Indian-born director Deepa Mehta makes powerful, controversial films that challenge the mores of her society and its dominant religion; her daring has gotten her banned, threatened, and burned in effigy. So why doesn't it allow her to escape rote romance tropes? She broke boundaries with 1996's Fire, the first of her loosely associated "elements trilogy": the central lesbian relationship attacked arranged marriages and modern Hindu attitudes toward women. But its 1998 follow-up Earth offered diminishing returns with another account of forbidden love, this time between a Hindu and a Muslim in 1947, when interfaith conflict was at a historical height. Mehta's latest, Water, completes the trilogy with a doubly prohibited romance between a widow and a lower-caste man. But the seams in the formula are showing, and the stakes have never felt lower.
Water opens with an aphorism explaining that a woman who is unfaithful to her husband is "reborn in the womb of a jackal"; it quickly becomes apparent that this ban against "infidelity" extends even after the husband's death. In 1938 India, an 8-year-old girl (Sarala) in an arranged marriage first learns of this when her husband dies, and she's taken to a widows' ashram, where she's expected to live out the rest of her life in poverty, chastity, and humble obscurity. For a while, she plays the standard role of bright young children in touching dramas: She opens up everyone's world and touches their hearts, charming the recalcitrant widows and brashly deflating their de facto ruler, an abrasive sybarite who pimps out the ashram's most beautiful resident (Bollywood/Hollywood's Lisa Ray) to support the widows–and her own tastes for drugs and good food. Ray accepts her thankless role mildly, until she meets idealistic Gandhi acolyte John Abraham, a forward-thinker who resists the Hindu ban against widows remarrying.
According to tradition, their romance is unthinkable. Still, it proceeds so smoothly and blandly that it never becomes personal or engaging. And it's a shame when the film's more complicated and better-realized characters–particularly Sarala and Seema Biswas, a gruff older widow struggling with her faith–get shunted aside for the sake of their generic, vaguely realized love. Water is gorgeously composed and beautifully shot, with a dogged emphasis on water imagery and symbolism, and a luscious sense for color. It's often profoundly beautiful. But its distanced, calculated attempts to draw sympathy, from its wide-eyed child protagonist to its sad-eyed, personality-free lovers to its fairy-tale ending, all blunt the meaning behind that beauty. Elemental theme aside, it could really use a dose of Fire's heat.