Laetitia Colombani’s The Braid is a beautiful film — its visual scope and language, its sonic landscape all strike an effervescent note; this is a decidedly well-wrought film. And in its endeavour, its moral goal, it, undoubtedly, aims at a kind of goodness: to depict the tales of three different women with immense tact, respect, and an ethos of empowerment embedded in a desire to treat its subjects with equality.
Colombani adapts her own best-selling novel of the same name, co-writing the script with Sarah Kaminsky and helming it as director. The story follows three women. Smita (Mia Maelzer) is a Dalit woman living in a village in India. That she is Dalit means that she is of the lowest caste, part of a group that has been referred to as the “untouchables”; as Dalit, she, in addition to lacking easy access to education, also experiences intense cultural discrimination. Wanting a better life for her daughter Lalita (Sajda Pathan), one devoid of dehumanizing toil, she embarks on a perilous journey to the city with Lalita in tow. Her goal is to get to a temple where it is said prayers are often swiftly granted. Smita’s story forms the film’s narrative and emotional backbone.
In another corner of the world, Giulia (Fotinì Peluso) happily works at her father’s wig-making workshop in Italy, but when he falls into a coma after an accident, she finds that the workshop and her family’s livelihood are threatened by debts her father kept secret. Meanwhile, in Montreal, Sarah (Kim Raver) lives a happy and successful life with her children and hopes to soon become a partner at her law firm, but finds her hopes dashed after she develops cancer.
Colombani’s lens takes measured turns as it follows each of the women’s stories, braiding one tale into the other, observing each of their unique paths to survival, until ultimately presenting the women’s lives as crucially linked.
The film works to literally braid the disparate stories, but ultimately, this desire for equality caves in on itself. The Braid, by its end, leaves one feeling hollow, leaves one with the impregnable and undeniable understanding that the world long ago outgrew a simple need for equality. The complexities of the structures and strictures that The Braid, through its delicate interwoven tales, hopes to interrogate require more than the revelatory gaze of this film’s second-wave feminist understanding and handling.
The Braid never reckons with or acknowledges the fact that the societal expectations this film concerns itself with uniquely impact each of the women at its core with an uneven pressure. Without this intersectional understanding, the film ends on a flat and therefore harrowing note, and paradoxically, the result scans as unbalanced or unfinished, not at all the even-handed, balanced braid of stories it desires to be.
Early in the film, Smita manages to get Lalita into school in her village, but when she finds that Lalita has been beaten, her uniform torn, and forced to sweep the classroom because of her Dalit identity, Smita voices to her husband a desire to move to a big city where anonymity might protect them against prejudice. Her husband reminds Smita of another woman who tried to leave their village — the other villagers (of higher castes) raped the woman and killed her, leaving her tied to a tree as a punishment. He tells her that a similar fate might await her if she tried to leave, if she tried to aspire to a better life for her daughter. Smita aspires nonetheless.
About halfway through the film, Smita and Lalita have to spend a night at a train station. They awake to find that another family has stolen their belongings. When she tries to retrieve Lalita’s beloved doll, the man of the family grabs Smita, pushing her up against the railing overlooking the train tracks. He tells her he will throw her onto the inbound train’s path if she takes the doll. Lalita is terrified, and with tears racking her little form begs her mother to forget about the doll, to just leave it be.
Together, these moments delineate a particularly cruel oppression that Smita and her daughter uniquely face as Dalit women. After each of these moments play out, the film cuts to either Giulia or Sarah, and the transition delivers emotional whiplash.
As a viewer, I went from fright, from indignation, from tears at watching sweet Lalita beg for her mother’s life, to the paradisiacal coastal setting of Giulia’s Italy or the ostentatious and delicate wealth cushioning Sarah. If anything, I found myself not adequately attending to Giulia’s or Sarah’s stories, I found myself wanting to stay with Smita, to make sure she was safe. Every moment not spent with Smita feels a unique kind of injustice.
Certainly it can be said that the film deals in a kind of realism that soberingly presents the tragic but absolutely real reality of women across the world. That it’s a fair depiction of how unfair the world is, especially to women. It could certainly be said of this film that it’s a success for the way in which it presents a certain gradation of oppression: by beginning with Smita, the most oppressed, and ending with Sarah, the ostensibly least oppressed, the film shows how not a single woman is safe and free within patriarchy. And the truth is, I would definitely have made this argument, certainly have praised the film for its unflinching portrayal, had it not been for the film’s ending, which contains a certain magic unique to fiction, which leaves me feeling uneasy, which in turn leaves the film’s entire form liable to unraveling.
Despite all the trials and tribulations that Giulia and Sarah are made to suffer — and this might be a spoiler — they attain a certain level of stability at the film’s end, with a definite something more than they started off with at the story’s beginning. What’s more, it is a stability and safety they get from Smita.
Smita, meanwhile, a character from whom the story has taken so much to feed its other characters, to gel its audience to the film by virtue of the trauma that it deals her endlessly, gets a vague and mere and uncertain glimmer of hope.
The fact of the matter is that these three women are not equally oppressed. Despite everything that happens to Sarah and Giulia, they still have resources and a social network around them to help them survive.
Smita does not have the other two women’s safety. She has her young daughter whom she must protect and no resources. Yet, Colombani ends the film taking away one of Smita’s last possessions to serve Sarah, the most well-off of the women, by way of Giulia. Despite the fact that Smita is faced with more intense and dire circumstances than Giulia and Sarah, has more at stake, and in spite of the fact that her life is inherently more difficult than the other two women’s, she still receives the same length of consideration as the other two white women as if their plights are equal.
Smita is a person from whom resources are extracted for the white women’s sustenance. The film simultaneously seems to understand Smita’s unique position — as evidenced through the nuanced cinematographic consideration with which the lens follows Smita, trailing her life’s intricacies — but also, it seems to not understand how to care for her.
I don’t mean to call for a kind of comparison redolent of a Trauma Olympics, but something about this film seems so unbalanced, so unfair — enough to suggest to me that perhaps this story should not have been written in the way it is.
Colombani is certainly an adept filmmaker, evident in how she handles the three women’s stories individually. But I think this film’s downfall lies in the fact of its braiding of the stories together, which fosters a kind of flattening comparison, or juxtaposition, that none of the three women, its subjects, deserve. The performances here are great, the score is beautiful. Maelzer is a powerhouse delivering a tender and complex performance as Smita, a woman with an awe-inspiring will and towering love. I just wish this film would have handled Smita as Maelzer handles her: with love and respect and dignity, ultimately with time.
The Braid presents me with an immense challenge. I understand what it’s trying to do, and it is beautiful in certain respects, but it just seems incredibly ill-equipped to tell the story of a Dalit woman with tact, nuance, and intelligence — leaving me uneasy and disappointed.
Ultimately, Colombani frames the film as an uplifting morality tale, the kind to remind us that we are more linked than we initially suspect, that women are powerful forces within their families, that one woman has the power to impact another woman’s life. And I don’t think Smita’s tale belongs in such a story. She deserves greater consideration, a less extractionary attitude. Her story should not be used to nourish and buttress white women’s lives. It deserves to be a story unto itself.