Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 01, 2021 8:09 pm 
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Raging in the heat in Tamil country

Pebbles is the grim drama of a alcoholic man, Ganapathy (theater actor Karuththadaiyaan) - also (in modern psycho-babble) a "rageaholic" - who drags his little son Velu (newcomer Chellapandi) out of school on a bus trip to his wife's impoverished village in the Tamil Madurai district after she runs away from his abusiveness. When he and the boy get to the town, they learn his wife has left to go back to him. Everyone heaps abuse on everyone else. All this takes place in remote southeastern India, Tamil country, which looks like the American southwest. It's so hot and dry nothing grows but wispy little trees. Women sit around waiting to grab rats when they're smoked out of their lairs, for food. The direness of the environment suggests the Australian outback, and these people feel a little like abandoned Australian aborigines.

Vinothraj shot the film in washed-out widescreen images with Sony A7 camera with CP.3 lenses: it's possible nowadays to get near-professional-quality visuals with a portable camera costing three or four thousand dollars and edit with the latest version of Apple Final Cut Pro. It's a particular advantage to work this light as an independent filmmaker can today when the subject is rugged country and unbearable weather like this. The determination, plus the modern technical efficiency of method, pay off as a combination in this powerful little film that Richard Brody of The New Yorker [url=""]commends[/url] for "the stark clarity of its story and the audacity of its style" and calls "the best dramatic feature" in this year's New Directors/New Films series.

The ultimate subject is dire poverty aggravated by extreme drought. Rage and alcoholism are seen as almost, in a way, legitimate responses. It makes for what the jury at Rotterdam, giving Pebbles the highest "Tiger" award, called "pure cinema." But as Brody points out, Vinothraj is a keen observer of the social and physical details he finds and the momentary changes of situation and mood his story delineates, so people like a woman with a child in her lap on the back of the bus and angry riders who tangle with Ganapathy over his smoking stand out and are individually memorable, even extra tickets charged for pots of water and the loose pole detached from the bus's roof. Even Ganapathy standing and glaring in all directions, retying his lungi, or energetically lighting a cigarette: it all seethes with energy and menace, though menace we sense is going nowhere and in time will burn itself out. Velu is obedient, and follows, but also tears up the return bus tickets so they must walk back and runs the the opposite direction in powerful protest later on, and continues to provoke and sabotage is father in other ways, throwing away his matches and burning his father's bare back with a reflective shard. There is no order here but the background throb of desperation and the rage of one against another when all are victims, but the filmmaker creates his own sense of order and perhaps of hope through his relentless attention to physical detail and his gift for pauses and silences that give his little film its power and its passion, the sense of a story, however grim and petty, told extremely well and with precision.

Pebbles/Koozhangal, 75 mins., debuted at Rotterdam Feb. 2021 where it won the Tiger Award; FICUNAM, (Mexico, Jeonju (all internet). Screened at home online for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021).

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