[Disclaimer: I know the filmmaker, Don Palathara, on Facebook and wrote this review following a note from him.]

I find it a little uncomfortable to refrain from giving “spoilers” when writing about a film like Don Palathara’s Family, to leave out — as most reviews of the film no doubt will — the single important piece of character detail around which it turns. Primarily because the film doesn’t treat this information as a spectacular reveal in the first place, giving it to us right at the 20-minute mark, without fuss or fireworks. Secondly because treating this information like some twisted secret to be discovered for kicks feels plain wrong, given the film’s subject matter. Even so, since Family has just premiered at the IFFR, I will write my review around this detail, although it should be amply clear for any imaginative reader what I’m talking about.

Set in a wooded village in Idukki, Kerala, Don’s sixth feature centres on Sony, a kindly young man who is the beating heart of his small Christian community. He helps out women with their household chores, he gives free lessons to struggling schoolchildren and he lends a hand in rescuing a cow trapped in a pit meant for a leopard menacing the village. When an outcast family is struck by tragedy, he intervenes with the Church to rehabilitate them. Everybody loves Sony, and they just can’t seem to do without him. There is, however, more to this sympathetic man than what meets the public eye.

Within the village, Sony appears to be everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. Completely anomalous yet strangely invisible. On the one hand, he behaves like a pastor who exerts great influence over his parish, worried about getting every lost sheep back into the fold: teenagers who are experiencing the pangs of adolescence, youth unsure about their careers, old men lamenting their plight. Like a pastoral prophet, Sony seems to be miraculously present wherever and whenever help is needed. He steers clear of the pervasive alcoholism that plagues the community, appears to defy its strict gender segregation, and shares none of its mistrust of cities and outsiders. In his easy mobility across public and intimate domestic spaces, he seems to be a rank exception.

Yet, in his self-effacing demeanour, in his laconism, in his unremarkable appearance and posture, Sony manages to dissolve into his surroundings. Don often films him deep in space, lost in the crowds and the setting, such that it becomes hard to work out where he is in the frame. Vinay Forrt — who plays Sony brilliantly and in good faith, without trying to tell us what we should think of him — has a touch of feline grace that greatly helps the animal metaphor the film sets up. In a terrific single-shot funeral sequence, timed like a ballet, he tiptoes out of a crowd of men in the background, vanishes behind a house, re-emerges in the foreground and exits right. With extraordinary economy, the scene conveys Sony’s capacity to appear and disappear without anyone noticing, even the viewer.

But Family is as much about the village as about Sony himself. With evident familiarity, the filmmaker presents the habits, rituals and mores of this self-enclosed community under the sway of Catholicism. He does not elucidate the exact relationship between the film’s two dozen characters — everyone is aunty/uncle, brother/sister, grandpa/grandma to everyone else — which gives the impression of the village being one big family united by the Church. Abounding in scenes in which two characters talk about a third person, Family plays particular attention to the way knowledge is produced and circulated within this hierarchical community. Secrets become public knowledge and public knowledge becomes secret as soon as it runs contrary to the prevailing order. A powerful dissolve late in the film takes us from the image of Sony walking with a boy over a hill to an influential nun arriving at the village; it’s that no information escapes the eyes of the Church, if not God.

“God is watching every small deed of ours and judging us,” this nun tells Sony nonetheless. You feel the weight of that line in Family, in which images of saints, prophets and pontiffs watch over every household. Many tableaux present the characters from a slightly elevated, “altar” view corresponding to the pictures on the wall; a few others feature characters looking up offscreen in prayer, as though waiting for intimations from an invisible power. The shot in which we learn the truth about Sony is perversely cut to a painting of the Christ, as though He is overseeing these events in silence. Family is a film about seeing, not seeing and refusing to see, and it is filled with electrifying reverse shots hinting at unseen, unknown forces.

Among the filmmaker’s previous features, I’ve only watched Everything Is Cinema (2021), whose total subjectivity seems starkly different the objective, omniscient approach of Family. Everything Is Cinema operates entirely on an ironic level, staking its success on the viewer’s capacity to distinguish between the protagonist’s and the filmmaker’s points of view. It chose to tread a very tricky territory, so it made sure it put quotation marks around the lead character’s perspective whenever the viewer identification with him proved too problematic.

Family, in that regard, is a more assured work. It still incriminates its characters, but does so with a confidence and flair that stems from a firmer subject position. The film is rigorously composed, with a fine sense of balance within static frames. The elliptical storytelling, the sparing score, and the purposeful construction of shots, with every glance and movement invested with specific meaning, oblige us to pay close attention. In return, they refine our understanding of the story and the characters. (There is a Haneke-like quality to Family, with all its attendant strengths and drawbacks.) As the film unfolds, even mundane scenes, such as a child playing around the house, become gripped by an ineffable dread. This dread finds expression in the climactic image of a majestic leopard — a stunning reverse shot that both shocks in its unexpected directness and offers a strange closure by representing the unrepresentable.

Yet the film isn’t overdetermined by its central conceit. What we learn about Sony may colour our view of his behaviour, but it doesn’t exhaust it. Emanating from the film is the impression that, beyond personal motivations for integrating himself more and more into his community, Sony is genuinely concerned with its betterment, that the community represents for him a reprieve from the harsh reality of his home. Similarly, the community’s attempts to suppress scandal and silence objectors may be a self-preservation mechanism, but it also comes to reflect the community’s essential fragility, its reasonable fear that the cohesive force keeping the village together will come undone.

I suspect some of these nuances will be lost in discussions around the film, given our era of renewed moral puritanism. To be sure, Family does not mince its words. If anything, it is too blunt and severe in its criticism of the Church, which looms large later in the film. The characters around Sony may not be entirely convinced of his wrongdoing, but the film makes his misdemeanour absolutely clear to us, while at the same time not allowing us to be complicit in it as witnesses. In doing so, however, the film doesn’t feel the need to be sanctimonious, to segregate good from evil on our behalf. For Family deals in human and systemic complexity, refusing easy answers to questions that we would rather brush under the carpet.

A train moves across the screen from left to right. The camera echoes the movement, panning slowly to the right, in the same direction as the locomotive. In the foreground, in front of the train, are three women, clad in sarees, striking a graceful pose before a tree, their heads gently responding to the moving vehicle behind them. The edge of the panning camera stops just to the right of the tree. We expect the train to come into view after it passes the tree, but no, the iron horse simply vanishes behind its trunk, as if swallowed by this compositional element. This shot, worthy of a John Ford, constitutes the opening of Bengali academic and experimental filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak’s seventh feature, Glossary of Non-human Love, one of the five Indian films screened in June at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).

And it’s a shot unlike anything else in contemporary cinema, combining movement and stasis, a classical idea of plastic beauty with some SFX magic. It will be a question of such incongruencies and anachronisms all through Avikunthak’s film, which, we are told, is set in a future when Artificial Intelligence has taken over human life. Divided into 64 chapters, variously titled “Jealousy”, “Affection”, “Remorse”, “Delusion”, “Perfection”, “Rebirth” and so on, the film offers a series of vignettes in which half-a-dozen men and women, presumably hollowed out by AI, try to understand the cumulus of emotions and sensations around physical love.

The chapter names have little relation to what we see in the vignettes; if there is a connection, it is mostly oblique, for instance the chapter titled “Shadow” where an actor plays shadow cricket, or the one called “Non-Duality” where another performer smokes with a CGI double of hers. Many of the vignettes are propelled by dialogue, but the lines are shared by different actors such that none of them has any fixed identity. Several scenes feature the performers in the nude, composed into striking tableaux or engaged in minimal but precise movements, with their desexualized nudity echoing the blank states that their minds are. What sounds like residual memories of lovemaking are invoked, as are mythological and historical accounts; the difference between past and present, male and female, gods and humans all vanish in this collective stream of consciousness.

It is a tall order to process Glossary of Non-human Love in any meaningful way in one viewing, especially for those who don’t speak Bengali, caught as the eyes are between its visual provocations and the subtitles. Unless your name is Ashish Avikunthak, trying to closely follow its philosophical arguments will not take you very far. It will, in any case, take you away from the primary pleasures of the film, which lie not in its text but on its surfaces.

There is always something of formal interest in each of the vignettes, the film constantly experimenting with newer ways of composing them. At times, it is the gonzo camera angles that prompt the viewer’s eye to recompose space; elsewhere, it is the fragmented compositions in which the frame is divided into multiple rectilinear subframes, each one competing for our attention. Or it’s the fine-grained sound design, which suggests a world beyond what we see. Some sketches are presented as single-shot tableaux while others are distributed across several settings, jumping from one to another even in the middle of a single line of dialogue.

It is, however, the use of architecture in the film that is most striking. Discounting the outdoor locations, Glossary of Non-human Love is shot inside half-a-dozen different residences in Kolkata and Mumbai. The buildings range from angular, modernist designs to colonial structures and traditional brick houses; their peeling paint, rusty ironwork, double doors and grilled windows with Indo-Mughal motifs, scorched courtyards and general lived-in quality possess a nonhuman sensuality and warmth that stand in contrast to the icy, naked bodies of the performers.

Despite the dead seriousness of its subject, Glossary is also a film with a subtle sense of humour. Many of its indoor scenes are intruded upon by the external world, either visually through the windows or in the form of ambient sound, which pierces the Great Art Film Experiment conducted by the filmmaker and his collaborators, hermetically sealed within expressly emptied houses. In this, and in its attention to the textures of everyday living, it joins the cinema of Tsai Ming-Liang, whose work too taps into the spiritual possibilities of the quotidian spaces.

Equally provocative, but in another manner, Kerala-based filmmaker Don Palathara’s fourth project Everything Is Cinema is told entirely from the point of view (and the camera) of a Malayali filmmaker called Chris, unseen but voiced by Palathara himself. Chris, we learn, went to Kolkata in January 2020 to shoot some kind of a remake of Louis Malle’s documentary Calcutta (1969). But the project comes to a halt with the outbreak of the pandemic, and Chris is stuck in an apartment in the city with his partner, an actress called Anita (Sherin Catherine). At this point, his film turns inward, with Chris now shooting Anita in her daily routine.

The city documentary may have turned domestic, but the filmmaker’s gaze remains that of an outsider, with Malle’s voiceover over street scenes of Calcutta giving way to Chris’ voiceover over monochrome images of Anita. We see right away that their relationship is in tatters: the pair is estranged; Chris can’t stand Anita and subjects her to a barrage of criticisms on the soundtrack, ranging from mild rebuke for her supposed hypocrisies to misogynistic tirade. With little self-awareness and much self-love, he assumes a higher moral and intellectual stand, regularly quoting philosophers and undercutting Anita’s supposedly pseudo-progressivism.

Even within the confines of a private space, Chris and Anita are enacting a filmmaker-actress duo, that classic model of modernist filmmaking with its own gender biases: the camera-wielding filmmaker is the creator-subject (thoughtful, capable of Deep Emotion) with the capacity to describe the actress-object (shallow, conceited if interesting and colourful), not very unlike the power dynamic Malle found himself in in relation to the city he was filming. The camera, in Chris’ hands, becomes the vehicle of objectification and abuse.

The impression one gets, however, is that Chris is somewhat thick in the head. Making this film, he thinks he is incriminating Anita, finding irrefutable proof of her vanity and vileness. The poor idiot even assures us that he isn’t manipulating the footage to place her in an unfavourable light. But the visual evidence incriminates only him. Nothing in what we see of (and hear from) Anita confirms Chris’ negative characterization of her in the voiceover. He generously offers to intersperse footage of Calcutta as a welcome break for the viewer from having to constantly see Anita’s face, but it only serves as a welcome break from his obnoxious monologue.

So Chris’ film gets out of his hand and turns against him. The camera frame, instead of imprisoning the figure it contains, indicts the one behind it. In one of his many moments of self-flattery, Chris compares himself to the protagonist of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff (1979), a man who can’t relate to the world around him unless he sees it through the frame of a camera. But in fact, he is closer to the protagonist of another Kieślowski film, A Short Film About Killing (1988), which immerses us entirely into the subjectivity of a murderer. There are moments where we sense that there may be a more reflective, nuanced individual in Chris, as when he wonders why Anita stopped writing or when he mulls over the possibility of collaborating with her, but it’s these contradictions that serve to throw his darker thoughts into relief.

Palathara’s film is patently treading on dangerous ground. In its very concept, it offers the viewer a space to intimately identify with the deranged impulses of a woman-hater. But unlike a work like Gone Girl (2014), this identification is kept in check in different ways. Firstly, the (presumably) liberal audience of the film already has their sympathies aligned with Anita, especially as she is obviously in the right here. There are, then, scenes of Anita speaking for herself before the camera—like Malle’s subjects who return the camera’s gaze—puncturing Chris’ descriptions of her. Finally, Palathara amps up Chris’ odiousness to a breaking point—and this is arguably a failure of nerve on the part of the film—that we are more hostages to his point of view than accomplices.

The film doesn’t always succeed in working out solutions to the problem of identification posed by its framing concept, but for the most part, we are kept in a state of fugue, laughing sometimes with Chris and sometimes at him. And Palathara certainly deserves credit for taking the risk, for not settling for an easier way out by, say, telling the story from Anita’s perspective. His film is less a cinematic exploration of a relationship gone sour and more an investigation into the ethical questions of cinema through the time-tested device of a marriage-in-crisis picture. In just that, the film accomplishes more that most domestic dramas out there.

 

[Originally published at Mint]