On the one hand, I had one of those great film festival moments with Scream of the Ants, where the print of the movie was caught in the mail and so we had to watch a screener DVD. On the other hand, a screener DVD was self-evidently not the best way to see the film, and I'm fairly certain that my response wouldn't be so negative if I hadn't been watching it in low-resolution with a giant watermark in the upper right corner.

I mean, say what you will about it (and I intend to), there's no doubt that this is an essentially cinematic film, by which I mean it makes its arguments in a way that could not be replicated in any other medium, using a combination of editing and offscreen space to great effect in constructing its argument. Unfortunately, its argument is far too dry and intellectual, a very serious look at the way that religious belief affects the balance between the impoverished and the well-off. I am reminded that Eisenstein spent much of his career trying to develop a cinematic language that would allow him to adapt Das Kapital, abandoning the project when it became obvious that such a language did not exist, although I've always assumed that the fact that such a film would be unwatchably dull might have contributed. Scream of the Ants is not unwatchably dull, but it does not go out of its way to make things easy on us.

If you're making a film about the intersection of religion and poverty, there's probably one country that leaps to mind as the perfect setting: India. India, where something like 98% of the population lives below the poverty line, and where religion affects nearly every level of human existence. Writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (whose place in history was secured by Kandahar) presents us with an engaged couple from Iran, conveniently named in the end credits as Lead Actor (Mamhoud Chokrollahi) and Lead Actress (Mahnour Shadzi), visiting India on the advice of their meditation teacher to speak with a figure known variously as "the Complete Man" and "the Perfect Man," a figure of unusual holiness.

When we first see the man and woman, two Indian boys are outlining their shadows with rocks as they sit on a rock in the desert, carrying a chair, waiting for a train. It's the classic "drop the audience right into a confusing situation and take your time explaining it" opening gambit, and I have to be honest: it grabbed me but good. The sheer gutsiness of starting a film in such a context-free moment is hard to deny and hard to resist. Not to mention that once we've figured out what's going on, later, the scene still retains its strength as the opening of this particular story: from the very first moment, the man and woman are in a strange environment, not understanding what the locals are doing even though they are doing it with great diligence.

In all honesty, there are little moments like this scattered throughout the film, and they always work, always stressing the main characters' alienation and confusion, their dismay at how India is not the country they expected it to be. But for all that I loved the film in its small strokes, the larger movements are more than enough to overwhelm them and leave them as tiny gems in a pile of dirt. The very next scene, though not in itself objectionable, begins to show why. The man and woman finally get on a train, where they find themselves seated next to a photojournalist from the south part of the country. Like the Iranian man, he is an atheist, and like the woman, he is hoping to see a miracle, and while he introduces himself, he talks at great length about how people coming to India for spiritual enlightenment are invariably foreign tourists who have no idea what the country is actually about. The camera spends most of its time on the Iranians, cutting from one to the other at irregular intervals as the Indian speaks, and the effect is to focus our minds not on what is being said but on how it is received. There are an awful lot of very long conversations in the movie, and all of them are shot this way, although it is worth pointing out that it is only here, with the journalist explaining why tourists are fools, and at the end, when a German expatriate tells the man all about his history in the country, do we get to see the speakers in any meaningful way for any length.

So what's the problem? It's leaden. Watching people realise that they have been making a series of grave mistakes can be interesting, and even watching people listening can be exciting in rare circumstances. But watching people listen to esoteric conversations about Indian religion and Indian poverty, and then watching them look at ironic juxtapositions of Indian religion and Indian poverty, that isn't really all that exciting. In the moments when the film literally shuts up - when the various speakers have said their piece and Makhmalbaf's camera can passively observe the country and its people as Malle did in Phantom India, that is when it achieves something beautiful and compelling. But most of it is just on-the-nose dialogue that never ever stops clanging along, informing us of things we probably already knew.