Movie Review: Whispers of Fire & Water

Screened at El Gouna Film Festival 2023

One-liner: Enigmatic and immersive sound and visuals are undermined by an experimental appetite, inconsistent pacing and muddled storytelling in this disconnected eco-adventure drama.

Whispers of Fire & Water is an experimental adventure drama about an audio installation artist whose spiritual journey takes him to the largest coal mining region in Eastern India where fires have burned for over a century. It’s here that he witnesses the steady depletion of natural resources, uncovering secrets of the steadily disappearing forest where many seem to have vanished.

As writer, director and editor, this is very much Lubdhak Chatterjee’s vision of earth on fire, where ambient sound and epic visuals go hand in hand. He’s conjured a vivid dreamscape of endless possibilities where an enigmatic soul meanders rising smoke and fire only to find much more luscious terrain. Having walked among these scenes, there’s a biographical slant to this free-spirited expedition.

Sagnik Mukherjee is the golden thread to this eclectic tapestry of sight and sound, our spiritual guide who connects the dots and makes a way. Offering a sense of continuity, the camera roams alongside, taking him from wide open spaces to the humble confines of his accommodation. Mukherjee has a disarming spirit, quiet strength and resilience, allowing this screen presence to filter into the picture as he encounters locals.

Dealing with environmental themes, Chatterjee gently peels back this messaging, allowing the sound and visuals to do most of the storytelling. Moving by intuition, this production has an unfiltered and self-indulgent quality as the soundscape and visuals merge. A journey film, it’s the artist who compels us on this quest as wisps of story begin to emerge from the coal and fire.

Unfortunately for Whispers of Fire and Water there’s just not enough of a story thread to hold everything together cohesively. It’s difficult to follow what’s actually happening as our lone adventurer winds his way through this wilderness. The little dialogue there is seems superfluous and doesn’t help create the necessary structure to build a vivid and engaging narrative.

whispers of fire and water movie

The mystery of sound and spirit.

An experimental film with a documentary undercurrent, scenes are a bit haphazard and the pacing is inconsistent. Zipping from one short scene of a few seconds to lingering shots, there’s a strange and often jagged flow to Whispers of Fire and Water. While this free-flow style keeps you guessing, the cool distance numbs engagement and stunts character development with the artist always just out of reach.

If the screenplay had a driving goal and more structure Whispers of Fire and Water could have been a fascinating exploration of environment, unlocking deep-seated mysteries of the forest and mines. Focusing on the missing locals or giving the artist a more defined goal may have been all the direction this story required. Ready to integrate a few genre elements quite easily, Whispers of Fire and Water could have had the shape and texture it needed to swathe audiences in its lush world.

Taking a similar line to the equally experimental film, Woodwind, the two run divergent when it comes to a sense of structure and story. Both concerned with sound, more music in Woodwind’s case, the spiritual journeys across India have different ambitions but are both are compelled by an enigmatic lone adventurer.

There’s much potential in the moments where Whispers of Fire and Water’s moving parts work in unison. A feature film debut, one can understand there being a few missing pieces with a steeper learning curve. Hopefully Chatterjee will invest more foundational time to the outline and screenplay to help mine his characters and carve out a more coherent and laser-focused story. While enchanting and even epic at times, the roots of Whispers of Fire and Water just aren’t there, making it come across as muddled and wispy.

The bottom line: Disconnected