THE DAY of the Cecil B. De Mille cast-of-thousands biblical extravaganza is long gone. In its place we have the intimate epic, as represented recently by Martin Scorcese's controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ," and now Peter Brook's interpretation of "The Mahabharata," the massive Hindu bible. Both films take a just-the-high-points tour of their monumentally sweeping stories.
Any way you look at it, "The Mahabharata" is a supremely ambitious film subject. A 100,000-stanza Sanskrit poem, more than 10 times longer than the Bible, it's one of the oldest and most sacred works of Indian literature, and one of the world's longest written works. For his 1985 stage version, Brook distilled this metaphysical marathon down to nine hours; for the film, he's got it down to three densely populated hours.
In Brook's framing device, a young boy wanders through a maze of caves and discovers a Wise Old Narrator who proceeds to dictate the "political history of mankind," the tale of a race of god-men from whom all in the known world descended.
"If you listen carefully," the narrator tells the boy, "at the end you'll be someone else." (At the very least, you'll need a good stretch and a cup of coffee.)
It's a series of ripping interrelated yarns, several of which have recognizable biblical parallels, and any one of which would have made a fine movie on its own. To boil it all down still further: Two warring bands of brothers, offspring of kings and gods, fight savagely for dominion. In this corner, we have the five virtuous Pandavas, led by Arjuna, versus the ragingly macho half-brothers Duryodhana and Karna. Both teams get sideline advice from the benevolent god Krishna, who tries to teach them to restore earthly harmony by abandoning their bloody lust for power.
The film successfully sketches an allegory about man's endless and creative capacity for self-destruction. But the extreme compression shows, and though Brook and his international cast handle the material with reverence (and a saving sense of humor), it now and then resembles a Classic Comics version of the tale.
Made in three months for a shockingly low $5 million and filmed on a set colored with spice, smoke and stone, and lit by candles, torches and mist-shrouded moons, "The Mahabharata" is often gorgeous. Its theatrical artifice allows the viewer's imagination to supply the location vistas, hordes of armies and fields of real battling elephants that De Mille might have sprung for.