ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Immaculate Conception (1992) Blu Ray (Indicator)
An eventful fertility ritual
This tale of religious faith is set in Karachi, Pakistan during 1988. Melissa Leo plays Hannah, an American Jewish woman living in the country with her boyfriend Alistair (James Wilby) - an Englishman stationed there as part of a World Wildlife Federation conservation project. The main difficulty in their relationship is that they are unable to conceive a child.
One day, Hannah visits a Muslim eunuch shrine in the company of her Pakistani friend Samira (Shabana Azmi), who has been sent there on a photography assignment. While she is in their presence, their spiritual leader Shehzada (Zia Mohyeddin) tells her that he can enable her to have a child. Needless to say, this fills her with delight and, despite Alistair’s lingering skepticism, they decide to go through with their fertility rituals.
Surprisingly, this all initially seems to work out very well as Hannah becomes pregnant. However, a number of complications surrounding who exactly the baby belongs to result in a rift opening up between the couple.
Watch a trailer:
Uneven but atmospheric drama
There’s a fascinating and intermittently disturbing tale at the heart of this drama. It’s one which examines questions of dogma and blind faith. This is seen through the relationship between Alistair, who is aggressively rational, and Hannah, who is absolutely dedicated to submitting herself to a cult-like dogma even while conflicting evidence is thrown in her face. However, while the overall execution of this idea isn’t without interest, it suffers from several shortcomings.
Coming in at just over 2 hours in length, the film takes far too long to make its points and gets bogged down in an excessive number of subplots. There are numerous scenes focussing on Alistair’s wildlife conservation work as well as an affair which he starts with Samira. There are others focussing on the furore in the Muslim world which occurred in the wake of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Most of all, another major character is introduced - an elderly gay book collector named Godfrey (played by James Cossins) - for a parallel story whereby he gets into trouble with the authorities after photographing a Quran. The narrative would have been much tighter if even one or two of these threads were dropped.
There are numerous other issues here, ranging from the distinctively stilted dialogue to the fact that James Wilby’s Alistair comes across as being so arrogantly unsympathetic that one wonders why Hannah stuck with him for this length of time. Nonetheless, against all odds, Immaculate Conception works in its own way mainly because it remains so wrapped up in all of the local colour throughout (quite literally; the Indian Subcontinent is one of the most visually colourful parts of the world). In fact, the film’s wide-eyed sense of wonder and bemusement at the otherness of the culture that it depicts (from the gender-fluid nature of the eunuchs to such little quirks as a cinema showing a Pakistani version of The Godfather) seems to be its main raison d'être in lieu of any solid dramatic base.
Runtime: 123 mins
Dir: Jamil Dehlavi
Script: Jamil Dehlavi
Starring: James Wilby, Melissa Leo, Shabana Azmi, Zia Mohyeddin, James Cossins, Shreeram Lagoo, Ronny Jhutti, Tim Choate, Bhasker Patel
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The music sounds rich and crystal clear in the stereo audio mix. The 2K restoration is colourful but the image is overly soft and hazy.
Jamil Dehlavi: Saints and Sinners
A brief interview with the film’s writer, producer and director, who first got the idea when he was making a Channel 4 documentary about shrines in Pakistan and came across one ran by transgenders. As a result, he went back to them and asked if he could make a fictional film instead of the doc. Since the channel had quite an experimental bent at this time, they agreed to his request.
James Wilby: A Dangerous Picture
Lead actor James Wilby talks about his experiences of working on the film. While they were filming, the First Gulf War broke out and anti-Western tensions were inflamed. The sets got smashed up and several crew members wanted to leave. He, however, had learned from his own childhood experience of the 1963 coup in Burma that it was best just to lie low. There are also some other interesting tales that he has to tell, including the by-chance filming of baby turtles on a local beach, his genuine dangerous driving during one suspenseful sequence and him smoking a large spliff in order to convincingly act as a person under the influence of a drugged drink.
Ronny Jhutti: Leap of Faith
Jhutti was 18 at the time and this was his first feature film. He plays a young Pakistani character called Kamal, who has a pivotal role. He goes a bit more deeply into the politics surrounding the Gulf War which interrupted filming for a time. He also talks about the locations; while the bulk of it was shot on location in Pakistan, some scenes were filmed in the UK. Some scenes set in a prison were shot in some old horse stables at Camden Lock in London.
Nic Knowland: Exotic Warmth
Cinematographer Knowland discusses his time shooting the film and his artistic collaboration with Jamil Dehlavi.
The other extras here are a trailer and collector’s booklet.
Immaculate Conception isn’t entirely successful as a drama but is redeemed somewhat by its unique atmosphere. The disc itself is OK with some interesting interviews.