The American movie Witness (1985) will seem instantly familiar to Indian viewers. Dil Hai Ke Manta Nain (1991) nicked the innocent dance in the barn that turns serious. Dil Se (1998) borrowed the moment when a bathing woman, spied by a man, continues to soap herself while returning his gaze. The plot itself loosely inspired Malayalam cinema’s Poovinu Puthiya Poonthennal (1986), which was remade in Hindi as Hatya (1988).

Though Peter Weir’s Witness inspired other films, few have captured its delicacy or feeling. Witness opens with gentle scenes that give little indication of the violence that is to follow. Members of a traditional Amish community gather to mourn the death of Rachel’s husband.

In this rural town, everybody dresses modestly and alike. They speak the German of their ancestors. They still use horse-drawn buggies for transport. The world beyond this time warp can be cruel, as Rachel’s son Samuel finds out.

Soon after the funeral, Rachel (Kelly McGillis) and Samuel (Lukas Haas) leave for a trip. Samuel is wonderstruck at the marvels of modernity, his eyes taking in everything he can, but also something he shouldn’t.

At the railway station, Samuel sees a police officer being murdered. The investigating detective John (Harrison Ford) questions Samuel, much to Rachel’s consternation. We Amish have nothing to do with your laws, she tells John.

After the killers get on Samuel’s trail, John realises that there’s no better place to hide than Rachel’s remotely located farming community. Here, John learns Amish traditions, milks a cow, and develops forbidden feelings for Rachel.

The 112-minute movie can be rented from Prime Video. Peter Weir directs his story with remarkable tenderness, sensitivity and sensuality. Some of the movie’s most stirring scenes are between John and Rachel, where little is said but everything is conveyed through haunting close-ups shot in subdued light.

John Seale’s cinematography, inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, is not just gorgeous to look at. There are times when the Amish, in their rejection of modern modes of living, seem like figures from one of the seventeenth-century master’s works.

One of the movie’s themes is the many ways of seeing necessitated by a collision of values. Weir’s astute handling of tussling emotions peaks in a crucial scene that confirms John’s personal evolution.

Like Samuel, but in a different register, John too finds himself bearing witness to a world about which he knows little but which touches him in ways he could not have imagined when he first set eyes on Rachel and Samuel. The film’s title is as layered as its treatment of a routine crime drama is unusual.

Witness (1985).

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