I saw a movie on the weekend that will stick with me for quite a while. It’s called Water. It’s based in India (with English sub-titles), and at the core of the movie is a group of widows who have become disenfranchised from their communities because of their widowhood. When their husbands die, they are kicked out of their homes and families, and forced to live a sparse life in a cold and desolate home for widows. One of the central characters is a seven-year-old girl who, before she’s even had a chance to experience life in its fullness, has become widowed and consequently must be banished to this cruel and unjust world, without any of the comforts of home or family. Forced to beg and prostitute themselves for their survival, these women’s lives seem void of any joy. Even colour is taken away from them – to ensure that they are recognizable as widows and so that other people won’t risk contaminating themselves by touching them or even letting their shadows fall upon them, they are dressed in white saris with no hint of colour.

This is a powerful film. Not only is there a strong and moving plotline, the cinematography is brave and captivating. I love a director who will risk keeping the focus on something as simple as an overturned umbrella floating down the river for a little longer than might be acceptable in Hollywood’s rush to entertain. The other thing that really captivated me is the sparse dialogue. She (Deepa Mehta) tells a powerful story without wasting a lot of words. So much of the story is communicated by visuals and the viewer’s own response and imagination. Striking.

One of the themes throughout the movie is the theme of “desire”. These widows have almost no access to any of the desires of their hearts. Some of them have found surreptitious ways of indulging (eg. one hides a puppy in the attic, one has regular rendezvous’ at her window with a drug provider), but mostly they are denied what they long for. The oldest member of the group rambles on and on about her wedding day, when she was a mere child of seven – her recounting of it always centres around the abundance of sweets that day. She dreams of being able to eat sweets again – something she has been denied for many years. At one point, Chuyia sneaks out with some of the money she’s collected from begging and buys a ladoo (some sweet local treat) for this old woman. Her delight in indulging in it is almost orgasmic.

There is a tension throughout the movie about whether people are better off denying or indulging in desire. When one of the central characters becomes involved in an illicit romance, you can’t help but celebrate her courage and the near satisfaction of her desires. On the other hand, you wish the lascivious men who indulge in their own desires and thus reduce the widows to lowly prostitutes had been denied their desires because of the way it destroys the dignity and power of the widows.

In one of the most powerful moments of the movie, one of the widows is talking to a spiritual advisor. He asks her if she has attained enlightenment. She answers “if that means ridding my body of human desires, than no. I have not.”

Is that what “enlightenment” should be – ridding oneself of human desires? Or should we only rid ourselves of those desires that hurt other people? Are some desires permissible and others not? It’s hard to say. The desire that results in children being prostituted or abused, for example, can have no merit in it. The desire for a good meal or (as in my last post) a tasty dessert now and then, seems harmless.

I think God made us with longings and desires. This is not inherently evil. We long for comfort, beauty, and joy. This longing is what makes some us of us paint great masterpieces, craft beautiful songs and poems, build awe-inspiring churches, or cook great meals.

Sometimes, however, desire leads us down dangerous pathways. Where is that line in the sand that leads to destruction?

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