In Shohei Imamura’s 1983 masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama, a woman fast approaching 70—the age when the old are sent into the mountains to die—works to ensure her sons’ future well-being. Marrying fatalism and selflessness, the film measures the flow of life and death in a village that lives on the edge of starvation. Now Imamura’s son Daisuke Tendan imagines what may have happened to the old ladies dumped in the snowy wastes. Turns out that, decades ago, one crone refused to accept her fate, somehow managing to survive by eating bark and the like. Now she’s the 100-year-old matriarch of a rag-tag tribe of castoff grannies. Their sanctuary, consisting of several primitive shelters barely visible beneath snow, is called Dendera.
How strange and wonderful, especially for one accustomed to airbrushed American movies, to watch a film full of old women, their lined faces and arthritic bodies reflecting the many seasons of their lives, the idiosyncratic beauty and grotesquerie of age. But the striking cast and the scenic grandeur of the setting are not enough to distract from the fact that Dendera doesn’t really know why or where it’s going.
Just when the ancient “queen” has convinced the toothless, white-haired Amazons they should wreck vengeance on the village that exiled them, a ferocious bear and her cub raid their precious stores, slinging defenders left and right in great sprays of blood. Is the relentless assault of this desperate, monstrous mother a sign? Have the septuagenarians violated some law of nature by living beyond their time? The bloody and prolonged struggle against the marauders, meant to suggest primal eruptions of nature red in tooth and claw, loses dramatic punch because the action is so sloppily choreographed … and the bear too often resembles an ambulatory rug.
Dendera isn’t good enough to realize its grabby ideas. It falls short even in making you feel in your very flesh and bones the brutal “weather” of survival—heavy falling snow, avalanches, oases of warm campfires in dim shelters. Tendan tries to invoke the power of primal “feminism,” but though his crones are physically arresting, they don’t pack the emotional or spiritual power that would make us believe in them as world-changers.