The title of this nearly three-hour epic, "The Mahabharata," means "the poetical history of mankind." If that sounds daunting, it is. Yet, it only scratches the surface.
"The Mahabharata," co-written and directed by Peter Brook, whose other film works include "Meetings With Remarkable Men" and "Marat/Sade," is based on Brook's own stage production, which was nine hours long, adapted from a 100,000 stanza Sanskrit poem written some 2,000 years ago.
A remarkable work that seems at times like Shakespeare crossed with the Old Testament by way of Greek mythology, Brooks has chosen to keep the theatrical tone of the piece, with long dialogue exchanges and monologues and stark backgrounds. (Even the outdoor scenes are obviously sets.)
But the film is less concerned with realistic backgrounds than moral values, human experience and religious faith, lost and found.
The first half of the film sets up the characters, members of two rival families in a vague time and place, though the characters' names, their philosophical musings and their apparel reveal the drama's Eastern roots. The universality of it all is furthered by a multi-international cast speaking with a variety of accents.
The second half of the film focuses on a lengthy war with the two families at first gambling for their stake in the kingdom at hand, then trotting out their respective armies to battle for possession of the land.
As the war is about the begin, one warrior kneels and talks to his brother for assurance before leading his army. Their talk becomes quite lengthy and a warrior on the other side shouts, "When will they stop talking?"
There will doubtless be times when members of the audience will feel the same way.
But there are some films where patience and concentration are ultimately rewarded, and such is the case with "The Mahabharata."
There are some fascinating, richly developed characters here, and the episodic stories in the film's first half are especially intriguing the blind king who's bride blindfolds herself, never to see again, and who later gives birth to something resembling a bowling ball, which becomes a hundred sons. The woman whose mantra allows her to mate with the gods, later giving birth to two sons who will both figure importantly in the stories to come. The king whose gambling addiction cannot be controlled even when his entire kingdom is at stake.
One of the story's strong running threads, emphasized repeatedly, has to do with the consequences of one's actions, so that it's important for the audience to pay attention to details everything that is said and done early on has to do with an event that will occur later.
Admittedly, this is a difficult film to swallow in one sitting and obviously not for the mindset that needs an explosion or a car chase every six minutes. And one of the weaknesses here is a static feeling thattakes hold.
On the other hand, Brook has managed a surprising amount of action and, particularly in the film's second half, builds some striking scenes that could only be done on film. (It was shot on a Paris soundstage.)
"The Mahabharata" is a fascinating film with many levels and one well worth plodding through.
It is not rated but would probably get an R for one gore scene, though everything else is in PG territory, including other violence and a single spoken profanity.