A Look At A 'World Unseen': Pretty, If Unsurprising

Sheetal Sheth as Amina and Lisa Ray as Miriam i

Forbidden things: Free-spirited Amina (Sheetal Sheth, right) and subservient homebody Miriam (Lisa Ray) find themselves drawn to each other in a culture that won't tolerate such relationships. Regent Releasing hide caption

itoggle caption Regent Releasing
Sheetal Sheth as Amina and Lisa Ray as Miriam

Forbidden things: Free-spirited Amina (Sheetal Sheth, right) and subservient homebody Miriam (Lisa Ray) find themselves drawn to each other in a culture that won't tolerate such relationships.

Regent Releasing

The World Unseen

  • Director: Shamim Sarif
  • Genre: Drama, History
  • Running Time: 94 minutes

Rated PG-13: Menace, violence, sexuality.

Parvin Dabras as Omar and Lisa Ray as Miriam i

Fenced in: Miriam's relationship with her chauvinistic, unfaithful husband, Omar (Parvin Dabras) gradually drives her away from her dutiful role as housewife and caretaker. Regent Releasing hide caption

itoggle caption Regent Releasing
Parvin Dabras as Omar and Lisa Ray as Miriam

Fenced in: Miriam's relationship with her chauvinistic, unfaithful husband, Omar (Parvin Dabras) gradually drives her away from her dutiful role as housewife and caretaker.

Regent Releasing

A buttoned-up tale of attraction between two women, The World Unseen would be entirely genteel if not for its ominous setting: South Africa, 1952.

Adapted by director Shamim Sarif from her own novel , the movie uses several trans-racial relationships to illustrate the viciousness and absurdity of apartheid, the national policy of "apartness" that governed race relations for decades. But those other, subsidiary pairings serve primarily to underscore the main story, which introduces two women of the same ethnicity but very different outlooks.

Amina (Sheetal Sheth) is a wild-maned rebel who runs a Cape Town cafe for a clientele categorized as Indian and "colored" — South Africa-speak for mixed-race people whose skin isn't very dark. Officially, neither whites nor blacks may enter, but Amina and her partner Jacob (David Dennis) bend the rules when the police aren't watching.

One character describes Amina as looking "like a man," which she certainly doesn't. But she does seem to be the only woman in greater Cape Town who wears trousers in public.

Prim Miriam (Lisa Ray), imported from India as a bride, is a housewife and mother — and very pregnant when she first enters Amina's cafe. A chance incident brings the two into close proximity, and they share a meaningful glance.

The intensity of the gaze guarantees that the women will eventually kiss, but their romance proceeds decorously. Amina and Miriam's first move? Exchanging volumes of Victorian literature.

While the two potential lovers become acquainted, Jacob and a white postmistress enjoy a flirtation, and Miriam's sister-in-law arrives from Europe with her white husband. Both transracial relationships are illegal in South Africa, and Miriam enjoys her first moment of rebellion when hiding her in-laws from racist cops.

Apartheid was brutally simple, and so are the conflicts in The World Unseen; lest any viewer be unsympathetic to Miriam, her husband is depicted as a chauvinistic bully who's cheating on her. Who wouldn't prefer Amina to this wretch?

Ray played an exploited young widow in Deepa Mehta's Water, and Sheth was Albert Brooks's guide in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Both are engaging and lovely. (In fact with this film, plus The Other End of the Line and the upcoming Slumdog Millionaire, the fall movie season is beginning to look like a Miss India pageant.) Watching the actresses together is a pleasure, although not an especially dramatic one.

The police storm into the narrative just often enough to sustain tension, and to remind viewers that Amina and Miriam's chaste liaison really is risky. As for the rest of the film, it's much like the director's occasional shots of South Africa's open spaces and vast skies: pretty and unsurprising.

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