Color, 1992, 122 mins. 58 secs.
Directed by Jamil Dehlavi
Starring James Wilby, Melissa Leo, Shabana Azmi, Zia Mohyeddin, James Cossins, Ronny Jhutti, Shreeram Lagoo
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD), Film4 (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Five years after his hallucinatory, metaphysical semi-horror film Born of Fire, director Jamil Dehlavi finally made his follow-up feature with another bizarre, surprising meditation on culture clashes and Muslim faith with a fair amount of perverse twists. Mounted over two years starting in 1990, the film is a fascinating and sometimes quite wild depiction of the price a couple will pay to have a child, with ramifications extending through an entire community.
While in Pakistan, photojournalist Samira (Indian superstar Azmi) takes her Jewish-American friend Hannah (Leo) to a shrine inhabited by eunuchs and run by the mysterious, gender-bending Shehzada (Lawrence of Arabia's Mohyeddin), who immediately senses Hannah's difficulties having a baby. Under instruction, Hannah returns to spend three nights at the shrine with her husband, Alistair (Maurice's Wilby), for a process she pitches as a kind of alternative medicine. Shehzada shares an unorthodox sexualized relationship with "godson" Kamal (Jhutti), who ends up playing a vital role in the fertility process that leads to a birth, a rift in the couple's marriage, and violent turmoil for everyone involved.
A fascinating film in many respects, Immaculate Conception has some unsettling and surprising twists involving sexuality that couldn't have made it easy to market back in the '90s; it will likely remain an eye opener for some even now. A future Oscar winner for The Fighter, Leo was still a fairly new face on the scene just a few years after Deadtime Stories and about to break through on TV's Homicide: Life on the Street. Both she and Wilby are called upon to perform some fairly enthusiastic carnal scenes at times, which certainly fits the heady sensual tone of the film, but they also do a good job of burrowing into their characters and playing off the excellent Mohyeddin and charismatic Jhutti, who incredibly had never made a feature film before.
Funded by Channel 4, this film has been very rarely seen outside of its U.K. VHS and 2010 DVD releases and should be quite a discovery for many thanks to its 2019 Indicator Blu-ray release. The new 2K presentation from the original camera negative is a real beauty with a dark, rich atmosphere full of saturated earth tones. Audio options include stereo and mono LPCM tracks; the former is the theatrical one and has almost nonstop strong separation effects, but the mix also causes some phasing in the dialogue at times that can be a little distracting. The mono track is listed as an alternative mix and may be easier on your ears, especially with headphones.
In "Saints and Sinners" (5m55s), Dehlavi explains how the project grew out of an aborted documentary project that sent him to a shrine with a transgender twist and became disrupted with the start of the Gulf War, which sent multiple crew members packing out of fear. That latter aspect is emphasized in "A Dangerous Picture" (20m6s) with Wilby, who explains how his own upbringing in Buma steeled him for situations like this and how the very low budget for the Channel 4 production required some creative thinking from Dehlavi, who's "not an actor's director." He also explains how that wild shot of baby turtles came about and shares his memories of a particularly daring and utterly real sequence they managed to pull off. Jhutti, who's gone on to an impressive acting career on British television, appears next for "Leap of Faith" (21m26s) explaining how he got the role at the very start of his career at the age of 18, got to approach the crafting of his accent, and dealt with the rising safety issues that arose during filming. Finally, "Exotic Warmth" (16m50s) features cinematographer Nic Knowland elaborating on how the script was translated into warm, glowing visual terms to get under the skin of the environment and the characters' sexuality, with the nature of the production requiring a fair amount of improvisation as they went along. A theatrical trailer is also included (way racier than what you'd see in a U.S. version), and the packaging also comes with an insert booklet featuring liner notes by Naman Ramachandran, notes on Knowland by Jeff Billington, a statement by Dehlavi, and excerpts from contemporary reviews.
Reviewed on March 18, 2019.