“Pebbles,” a Starkly Imagined Vision of Patriarchy and Poverty

The first word in the Iliad is “anger,” and anger is also the starting point for “anger”.Pebbles, “The first feature film by Indian director PS Vinothraj. It is a gendered vision of anger in which a woman calmly carries water in a large pot while a man stomps past her and down an alley in sinister anger. The angry man then storms into the village schoolhouse, defiantly orders a student – his young son – to get out and drags him onto a bus. They get off at a lonely outpost and walk through a deserted plain to another village, where the father – raw, bitter, violent, alcoholic – wants to force his estranged wife to return home with him. That’s the story of “Pebbles,” which is the best dramatic feature I’ve seen this year New directors / new films Series (runs April 28 through May 8, both online and in person). With the clear clarity of its history and the boldness of its style, it offers a complex view of social life, material conditions and struggles for selfhood in a remote mountainous region of Tamil Nadu, India.

Vinothraj is an extraordinary observational filmmaker – that is, he imagines the lives of his characters with extraordinary physical and psychological complexity. He designs daily incidents in teeming but sharply focused details and invests them with great moral weight. From small interstitial moments he draws a powerful atmosphere of premonition and tension. Even the seemingly trivial minutes in which father and son wait for the bus simmer with dramatic energy: Father Ganapathy (played by Karuththadaiyaan) buys a pack of cigarettes from a salesman at a kiosk – and nothing for his son Velu (Chellapandi). . As Ganapathy gets up and smokes, he looks steadily and suspiciously in many directions, as if he were surrounded by enemies. His eyes smolder like coals on fire in anticipation of the violence that his angry mission will inevitably bring.

This violence soon breaks out on the bus ride, while the ganapathy continues to smoke, although this is not allowed, and gets into an argument with another man who asks him to put out his cigarette. Here too, Vinothraj sees the action in many psychological dimensions. He builds up practical details with a strong dramatic sensitivity, starting with a young woman sitting in the back of the bus with an infant in her arms and carefully looking at the men who occupy most of the seats in front of her. Then another woman copes with three pots of water – and Vinothraj notes that she has to buy tickets for both the pots and herself. He also notices that water is shaking and splashing in the mouths of the ships and notices the unscrewed bar on the roof of the bus, which is also shaking. Vinothraj’s passion for details is analytical – it is a passion for infrastructure, for the conditions of mere livelihood, and for the threat and despair that these conditions bring with them. (In another scene, he meticulously films another family’s elaborate plans to catch and eat rats.)

Much of the film takes place on the road, or rather on the sun-drenched plains and country lanes, on which Ganapathy trudges barefoot and Velu (also barefoot) follows, past huge boulders and small mountains that are as much wonders as the silence in the area are witnesses to the drama that takes place between them. Ganapathy infuriates Velu, beats him and spits dirty nicknames on him, including the subtitles “Motherfucker”, “Cunt” and “Solace Seeking Slut”. Velu finds his own way to return to his father. After tearing up her bus fare and forcing her to go back, the boy undertakes another act of rebellion, minor but powerfully symbolic. After finding a shard of a mirror, he uses it to shoot hot sunbeams on his father’s bare back. But the atrocities and bitter conflicts of the film – like this one – are intertwined with elements of fantasy and mood when Velu playfully uses the mirror to flash the sun’s rays temptingly on a rock face. These and various other shots – one overhead showing the heads and shoulders of the bus passengers together with the floor of the vehicle, one from outside the bus by Velu’s hand dangling a balloon from the window, even one made of leaves that look like natural The glimmers of aspirational, subjective views that oppose the oppressive necessities of daily struggle are thrown in a vortex. At the beginning of the film, Vinothraj transforms one of the most boring stereotypes in international art house cinema – the journey with the back of the head – by chasing Ganapathy, who walks through the village from the terrifying point of view of Velu while being forced to follow him.

The bravery of Vinothraj’s filmmaking is most evident in a nine-minute, precise staging in which Ganapathy sends Velu down the street to his grandmother’s house, then shows himself and provokes a fight with his brother. in law. The choreography of the sequence gives a sense of increasing danger in every step. When the camera rotates to show Velu watching the violent scene in the course of which his father threatens to kill the boy’s mother, Velu’s silent, wide-eyed horror appears as a whole future at a glance, as a glance into a psychological abyss: what does this hateful, consuming aggression mean for his own fate to become a man? In the last scene of the film, Vinothraj’s vision of relentless subsistence work by women and anger by men comes full circle. Ganapathy eats water in the family kitchen with a casual splash while his wife and other women fetch water outside in the majestic but hideous landscape. Vinothraj films the work of women in intimate detail and in awe-inspiring length, showing exactly what a mere cup is required of them. It is one of the most memorable endings in recent cinema.

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