The production values mirror the quality of the performances. The cinematography is astounding, showing off the sweeping natural beauty of the South African landscape along with the lovingly crafted sets and period costumes. The music and editing are subtle and refined, giving the film the sheen of a big-budget costume drama.
The World Unseen unfortunately suffers from the chief problem of most book-to-film adaptations: It tries to cram too much story into its two-hour running time.
The audience is introduced to so many minor characters and tiny subplots that the story line becomes confusing and characters become difficult to differentiate from one another. While Sarif wisely limits the subplots to those that give insight into our heroines, some of the supporting details become muddled in the process.
A fortunate exception to this is a subplot involving the romance between Jacob (a black man) and Madeleine (a white woman). The sweet, touching subplot serves as a nice parallel to the core Amina/Miriam romance, showcasing another relationship that exists despite social taboo, and the bravery involved in defying the norm (and, in this case, the law).
Interestingly, the film parallels lesbian classic Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) in several important ways. In both cases the action is framed around a café that serves as a haven amid intolerance. And the characters of Amina and Miriam could easily be swapped for Idgie and Ruth — the independent, socially conscious butch and the unsure, abused femme, respectively.
Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth in The World Unseen
Despite these parallels, The World Unseen stands on its own by offering commentary on the culture at hand. Both leads are presented within the context of a tightly knit, highly traditional Indian community, with strong family ties and expectations.
The further complications of apartheid-era South Africa’s racism and sexism make it that much more difficult to defy the norm in this world.
The film’s title references this cultural crossroads and the fascinating, complicated characters that populate it. Designated neither black nor white according to apartheid, Indian South Africans present an ill-documented "world unseen."
The World Unseen is one of the best-conceived queer films of the past year — a sincere, beautifully realized vision of love and resistance in an intolerant world. Sarif does a fantastic job — especially for a first-time director — of bringing her story to the screen, and queer viewers would do well to catch the film as it makes the LGBT film festival rounds.