Cast: Vinay Forrt, Divya Prabha, Mathew Thomas, Nilja K Baby, Jolly Chirayath
Director: Don Palathara
Rating: Four and a half stars (out of 5)
The film premiered on Saturday at the ongoing International Film Festival of Rotterdam 2023
A subtle, penetrating and austere portrait of a rural community over which the Church holds sway in ways that alternate between the essential and the extreme, Family, writer-director-editor Don Palathara’s sixth feature film, is a testimony to his keen eye for detail, firm grasp on the medium and ability to address intricate, demanding themes with sensitivity.
The Malayalam film, featuring Vinay Forrt and Divya Prabha in key onscreen roles, had its world premiere on Saturday in the Harbour section of the 52nd International Film Festival of Rotterdam (IFFR, January 25 to February 5, 2023). This is Palathara’s second film to make the IFFR cut. His Cinema is Everything was at the festival in 2021.
While Family marks a return to the Catholic setting of his first two films, Shavam (The Corpse, 2015) and Vith(Seed, 2017), it is also a step forward in the evolution of his refined craft and singular cinematic language. In the span of eight years, Palathara has built a substantial body of work remarkable for its consistency. Family is a worthy addition to his oeuvre.
Family reflects a complex reality that does not reveal itself either in its entirety or with absolute transparency. It is a magnificently layered but minimalist depiction of the place and ethos that Palathara grew up in. His visual and narrative technique – restrained, tangential and loaded with meaning – serves to deepen the drama of truth and obfuscation at the film’s core.
Couched in the film’s unerring cultural specificity are universal truths about human behaviour. The underlying facts and facets of the story and the characters emerge through suggestions and oblique, passing references rather than with the aid of direct verbal means. On the surface, there is repose, even something akin to stasis. Beneath it lies a complex web of moral misgivings and manipulations.
Produced by Newton Cinema and scripted by Palathara and Sherin Catherine, Family plays out in a small village where the minutest of transgressions tend to be amplified by gossip, prurient curiosity and collective censure while the most grievous of misdemeanours are quietly willed away by a society adept at closing ranks to protect its belief systems.
Shot in warm, muted colours, the film focuses the ambiguities and angularities inherent in the socio-religious landscape. IT employs episodic encounters to reveal the way the community functions. Innocuous conversations conceal insidious facts or contain intimations of danger. However, nothing that the script spells out has the feel of mere cold information.
The film probes the human capacity to deflect attention and activate a defence mechanism when the family faces a threat. As a woman who has devoted herself to the service of God points out, a family is not just a biological entity. It is a social construct that hinges on loyalty to the parish and on the unifying power of prayer and repentance.
The central figure in Family, besides the Church, the nerve-centre of all activity, is Sony (Forrt), a do-gooder and busybody who is always at hand to help the villagers. He is a man that the village and the Church cannot seem to do without. “He is like a son to all of us,” says a nun.
A graduate who once ran a tuition centre and is now on the lookout for a formal job, Sony gives school children lessons in subjects they are weak in, takes the lead in voluntary projects, helps village women with their daily chores, gives company to the old and ailing, attends youth league meetings and never misses holy mass.
Everybody – well, almost everybody – loves Sony. And Sony loves everybody. He is a man who can do no wrong. Or can he? In the idyll that the village is on the face of it, there is a leopard on the prowl. But the wild predator isn’t the only source of unease and fear. The village has its share of other mishaps that set off alarm bells (but not in a literal sense because the focus, in keeping with Palathara’s style, is on understatement).
An elopement has gone wrong. The stigma triggers a death by suicide. A rash schoolboy faces the consequences of a slipup. Other acts and secrets threaten to upset the delicate balance that has been carefully struck and sustained by the Church. Everybody is under scrutiny here. Some pay the price, others walk free.
As the darkness hiding beneath the surface creeps out from a void, the response from those that hold the reins is swift and unswerving. A self-willed pregnant young woman, Rani (Divya Prabha, recently seen in the 2022 Locarno title Ariyippu) is an accidental witness to what she has reason to believe is a grave offence. But could she be imagining things and jumping to conclusions? Gaslighting follows as the dominant forces take over.
Early in the film, a cow falls into a pit built to trap a leopard. The villagers swing into action to rescue the animal. Much later in the film, it is a human who is in a metaphorical hole. It is the turn of the Church to stage a rescue act. But who needs to be saved and from whom and what are questions that remain enveloped in a haze.
The pacing of the narrative and the nature of the framing by director of photography Jaleel Badusha suggest both detachment and intimacy. The camera never gets too close to the characters and views the landscape, the village and its denizens from a calculated distance. It still reveals an entire, acutely etched world in all its width and depth.
Vinay Forrt fleshes out a character with multiple conflicting shades with a lot of effort to spare. The underplaying, which an integral part of the design and the pitching of the film, enhances the impact of the performance.
Divya Prabha, whose character represents a voice of reason in a climate where appearances and artifices are of paramount importance, delivers a performance of great emotional depth.
Family is a mellow, incisive, attentively chiselled film that critiques the human obsession with self-preservation no matter what the moral cost may be. Both as a piece of cinema and a chronicle of the leopards that lurk in our midst, it is an impressive accomplishment.
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