Ocean of an Old Man -- Film Review

BOTTOM LINE: A needlessly arty look at a subject quickly becoming a cinematic touchstone.

Pusan International Film Festival
New Currents

The effects of the devastating and defining tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004 are at the heart of this willfully opaque drama by first-time director Rajesh Shera.

Focusing on an elderly schoolteacher who lost most of his class to the catastrophe, Shera's intentions are honorable, but his execution makes for difficult viewing.

"Ocean of an Old Man" is an exemplar of festival films, and both its subject matter and oblique narrative and nearly expressionistic tone will make it a sure thing for the circuit. Beyond that, however, the film will be hard-pressed to find an audience of any sort, even in art house distribution.

The Teacher (Tom Alter), who we later find out is called Mr. Thomas, lives on one of the many scattered Andaman and Nicobar islands. He has dedicated his life to working at an under-resourced primary school, but after the wave strikes most of the other islands wind up underwater and his students disappear for one reason or another. It's never made clear whether they all perish, but there's a hint that a government order to relocate from the dangerous region has a bit to do with the missing kids as well.

Reminiscent of Aditya Assarat's "Wonderful Town" and that film's quiet contemplation of widespread loss and the resulting aimless despair, "Ocean" does have its moments of affecting, genuine emotion. When the teacher initially reads off his attendance list and is answered with repeated silence, the reminder of the sheer numbers of lives lost so quickly is moving. And his suicidal defiance of the omnipresent ocean current (water and/or the sound of water is in nearly every frame of the film) makes the inherent danger of the oceans vivid.

But those moments are fleeting. The rest of the film is either so underlit it's hard to discern what's going on, or it's crammed with random "artistic" images that would recall Bergman -- Shera is fond of the full facial close-up -- if there was more beneath the surface. Light on dialogue, Alter does a relatively good job of conveying crushing loss but can't completely redeem Shera's occasionally forced filmmaking.

Cast: Tom Alter, Iris Tittlbeck.
Director-producer-screenwriter-editor: Rajesh Shera.
Director of photography: Tapan Vyas.
Production designer: Alan McAlea.
Music: Saregama.
Sales agent: Rajesh Shera.
No rating, 84 minutes.