‘Traces of Sandalwood’ (‘Rastros de sandalo’): Film Review

Courtesy of Pontas Films
Refreshingly direct, but doesn’t go deep enough

A separated-sisters drama spanning Spain and India from underrated Spanish director Maria Ripoll

A too-rare example of a Spanish film by a woman director, Traces of Sandalwood shows Maria Ripoll adding to a five-film run of features that celebrate the old-fashioned virtues of low-key, crowd-pleasing film making. This tale of an Indian woman seeking her long-lost sister — and of that sister’s subsequent quest for herself — is similarly solid but not spectacular, playing out predictably but enjoyably without ever delivering emotionally on the promise of its first 10 minutes. Calculated to please crowds in both producing territories, Sandalwood has a practically all-female crew, which could also generate interest from woman-themed festivals.

An adaptation of one strand of a novel of which the screenwriter, Anna Soler-Pont, was co-author, the gripping, grueling and grim opening sequence sets the standard high and achieves a documentary urgency that is missing later on. A woman in an Indian village dies when giving birth to a daughter, Sita, whose sister Mina (the fine Vaibhavi Hankare, who the film misses when she’s gone) raises her. One day, with poverty having struck the family, the child is taken away and given to the nuns. In a truly heart-rending moment, the child weeps as she is driven away on the back of a truck.

Years later, the older Mina (high-profile Indian actor-director Nandita Das) is a Bollywood director-star, married to Das’s real-life husband Sanjay (Subodh Maskara). In a lovely twist that is not fully explored, we learn that the movie we’ve been watching is the movie made about her early years, hoping that it will jog memories among the public and perhaps lead her to her long-lost sister, whom she’s anxious to find. MIna’s investigation is handled with dexterity: Soon she indeed traces the adopted Sita down to Barcelona, where she’s working as a lab assistant and is now called Paula (Catalan actress Aina Clotet).

The climax of their meeting is not a climax at all, since in the real world nothing more dramatic can come of such a reunion than a sisterly hug. So it’s with their first meeting that the film really begins. Paula, just as she would be, is confused and overwhelmed and rejects Mina’s story. Intrigued by the fact that she might be Indian, though, Paula/Sita starts renting Bollywood movies from a store run by Prakash (Naby Dakhli), with whom she starts a tentative relationship. MIna and Sanjay largely disappear from view, biding their time while Paula comes to some sort of decision, awkwardly tackling her parents (Rosa Novell and Gal Soler) on the issue.

Paula’s self-doubt as she seeks to come to terms with her new situation by submitting herself to an introductory class in Indian culture at Prakash’s hands doesn’t make for particularly gripping drama. What both Paula and the viewer learn about Indian culture comes down to its nice music, fun films and nice clothes, and in a movie about the profound impact of culture clash on an individual, that’s not enough. The awful Indian poverty from which the sisters have been lucky enough to escape is also conveniently sidelined after those powerful first scenes: Mina, now rich and famous, certainly never refers to it.

All that said, as drama this is a well-handled and occasionally really subtle piece that knows how and when to press the emotional buttons. A couple of striking Bollywood musical sequences, choreographed by Saroj Khan, are woven in later on, perhaps to smooth the film’s passage to India and to the Indian Diaspora.

Das is wonderfully watchable, though the older MIna is too unconflicted to be of much interest as a character: non-pro Maskara as her husband is a little awkward, though there is an easy intimacy about their scenes together. Clotet shoulders the dramatic burden of the film’s second half well, but the decision to cast her rather than an Indian actress as Paula/Sita means that credibility is sometimes strained to a breaking point.

There may be enough happening in Mary Poppins for the viewer to happily forgive Dick Van Dyke’s otherworldly Cockney accent: but viewers will decide for themselves whether there’s enough happening in Traces of Sandalwood to forgive the fact that Clotet simply does not look very Indian, and is presumably there only for co-production interests. A lovely song, "Far Away," plays over the final credits.

Production company: Pontas Films
Cast: Nandita Das, Aina Clotet, Naby Dakhli, Subodh Maskara, Vaibhavi Hankare, Rosa Novell, Gal Soler, Godeliv van den Brandt
Director: Maria Ripoll
Screenwriter: Anna Soler-Pont, based on the novel by Asha Miro and Soler-Pont
Executive producers: Ricard Domingo, Albert Espel, Marc de Gouvenan, Anna Soler-Pont
Director of photography: Raquel Fernandez-Nunez
Production designer: Ana Pujol Tauler
Costume designer: Anna Guell, Shahnaz Vahanvaty
Editor: Irene Blecua
Composer: Zelta Montes, Simon Smith
Sales: Imagina Sales

No rating, 95 minutes