Dir: Asif Kapadia. UK/India. 2001. 86mins
A poised and confident first feature, The Warrior is an ambitious mixture of morality tale and sweeping adventure set against the spectacular scenery and burning light of Rajasthan and the Himalayas. The absorbing story of one man's renunciation of violence and his quest for peace has echoes of the lean, flinty Westerns that Hollywood made in the post-war years. It also has affinities with the more thoughtful Westerns in which Clint Eastwood explored the bloody legacy of the men who tamed the West and built America.
One of the highlights of an often indifferent British section at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival, it confirms writer-director Asif Kapadia as a talent to watch and should gain considerable further exposure and attention on the festival circuit. Eschewing crowd-pleasing flourishes or eyecatching action sequences, it lacks the kind of potential that transformed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon into a major crossover success; however, the combination of positive reviews, beautiful visuals and pared to the bone storytelling should guarantee healthy audiences in the specialised sector.
A graduate of the Royal College of Art, Kapadia won the Jury Prize at Cannes for his graduation short The Sheep Thief. He has subsequently directed commercials and served as a producer and director of both dramas and documentaries. The breadth of his experience shows in an exceptionally mature first feature.
Partly inspired by an old Japanese folk tale, there are strong hints of Kurosawa's samurai classics in the character and fate of the warrior Lafcadia (Khan). An enforcer for a local lord, he follows orders and asks no questions. Ordered to behead a man, he does so without flinching. Told to lead an attack on a village that has refused to pay its taxes, he saddles up and turns a blind eye to the looting and pillaging. Faced with a young girl, he hesitates, transfixed by a vision of them together in a wintry mountain retreat. Returning to the moment, there are traces of snow under his boot. It is his epiphany and he subsequently spares her life, abandons the village and vows never to lift his sword again.
The consequences of his decision snowball into a nightmare of loss and grief as his home is burnt, his son is slain before his eyes and he is forced through the desert and mountains in flight from a former comrade who needs to see him dead to protect his own skin. Along the way, he meets a young thief and a blind woman. Like the people encountered by Eastwood's outlaw Josey Wales, they ease his grief, touch his heart and help restore his humanity as he journeys onwards to a showdown with his past and the possibility of redemption.
A timeless tale of the search for salvation, The Warrior uses dialogue sparingly. The story is mostly related through the flow of images and the actions of the characters. Reducing complex matters to their essence, Kapadia favours a tightly controlled, no-frills style that unobtrusively serves the story rather than distracting us with an eagerness to impress. The result is calmly and quietly absorbing although it may mean he is guilty of slightly underplaying the more dramatic highlights, including the climactic meeting on the muddy streets of an empty village. The exceptionally trim running time leaves you keen for just a little more depth and detail, although it is a rare film that leaves you wanting more.
Roman Osin uses the blinding natural light of India and the remote, rugged landscapes to invest the film with a bracing beauty. An integral part of the story, the locations help explain and define the characters rather than tempt us with picture postcard prettiness. Dario Marianelli's score lends a hypnotic undercurrent to events and the film is a testimony to the craftsmanship and dedication of a crew working under impossible conditions. Kapadia has explained that there were days during the shoot when temperatures reached 47 degrees. Sunstroke, scorpion bites and wild dogs became everyday occupational hazards. The rough extremes of the production are not reflected in a finished film that is a work of scope and assurance.
Prod co: The Bureau
Int'l sales: FilmFour
Prod: Bertrand Faivre
Co-prod: Elinor Day
Exec prods: Hanno Huth, Paul Webster
Scr: Asif Kapadia, Tim Miller
Cinematography: Roman Osin
Prod des: Adrian Smith
Ed: Ewa J Lind
Mus: Dario Marianelli
Main cast: Irfan Khan, Puru Chibber, Mandakini Goswami, Sunita Sharma, Noor Mani.