Judge Adam Arseneau keeps his wallet stuffed into his crotch.
"What did you wish for?"
You know what's great about Sri Lankan cinema? Yeah, me neither. That's why I'm excited to check out Pickpocket, a rare look into international cinema from Sri Lanka, a country that is not often afforded the opportunity to export its celluloid productions to the international community.
Facts of the Case
Kamal (Linton Semage) is a Sri Lankan pickpocket who prowls the streets looking for prey. His pregnant wife urges him to give up his trade, fearing he brings shame to their family, but Kamal is unable (or unwilling) to find gainful employment in the world.
One day, he picks a wallet and finds a picture of his wife inside. Confused, he struggles to understand the significance of this event, and eventually becomes consumed by it. His life turned into chaos, he tells his wife nothing about the discovery, but ventures out into the streets, searching for answers. What he finds is only the beginning of his tragedy…
Pickpocket is an atmospheric film composed in shadow, facial expression, and ambient noise, of subversive glances and suggestion. Ten minutes of film roll past before a single character utters a word of dialogue. Atmospheric noises are mixed artificially loud, giving every small footstep, clink of glass, or drip of water massive resonance. The busy city streets become a cacophony of tires, horns, engines, and shouting voices. Faces are silhouetted in doorways, with only their eyes visible, casting furtive glances.
Though completely and utterly culturally disparate, Pickpocket has been shot and structured like a 1950s noir film, steeped in sweat, suspicion, and paranoia, and slowly building towards its inexorable conclusion. The protagonist Kamal might as well be wearing a trenchcoat and fedora rather than a white linen shirt. Disconnected dialogue occurs in brief smatterings like a shuffled deck of cards, seemingly out of order and randomly dropped here and there. Slowly, laboriously, an overall picture comes into focus; a meditation on life, maturity, and family from the perspective of a man detached from all three.
Kamal is utterly distant to begin with, and he only gets stranger and more obsessive as the film progresses on its path. Brooding and silent, he makes for a thoroughly unknowable and unlikable hero, but it his inability to connect to people that drives the film toward its resolution. By the time we fully understand Kamal, it is too late for redemption; his fate is already sealed.
There is much worth appreciating in Pickpocket, but it is buried very deep and hard to access. Jumbled and incongruent, it is a challenging piece of cinema made frustratingly difficult by an unnaturally tedious pace and compounded by our lack of understanding of subtle political allegory in Sri Lankan society. This will be a tough film for mainstream audiences to appreciate, to say the least. I have rarely experienced a film that fascinated me as often as it annoyed the crap out of me.
Indeed, Pickpocket is a film that appears overly simplistic on the surface—tedious and plodding and repetitive—but reveals itself to be surprisingly multi-layered and complex. It is a film overloaded with deep-rooted anxieties, near-silent dialogue, and heavy shadows, excessively so as to be simply annoying. With only a smattering of dialogue here and there, most of the film is simply Kamal walking endlessly throughout the streets, through the countryside, lost in his own thoughts and mental malaise. By the time you clue into the fact that Kamal might be something of an unreliable narrator, the film is over. The ending is clever and fitting, but so subtle that I actually missed it the first time and had to backtrack to even understand the conclusion.
There are some serious flaws with this DVD that need to be covered in great detail here, if only for the sake of full disclosure. On the visual side, Pathfinder did what they could with the source material, but grainy stock only goes so far. Displayed in the film's original full-frame aspect ratio, black levels are deep, but inconsistently so, and colors are washed and muted. Compression artifacts and jagged edges are noticeable. Worse, subtitles are burned onto the source transfer in white, making them all but invisible during daylight sequences. Given the relative state of Sri Lankan cinema on the world scene, all of this can be forgiven.
Where this DVD smashes into the brick wall is the audio. Rather than encoding the audio in PCM or Dolby Digital, Pathfinder chose to encode the audio in a MPEG stream for reasons utterly unknown to this reviewer. For many, this will not even register, but for those of us fortunate enough to possess DVD players that do not support MPEG streams, guess what? No sound. Nadda, nothing, you won't even here a beep. My fancy-pants $300 DVD player had no idea what to do with Pickpocket and stayed utterly mute, but ironically, my el-cheapo $30 DVD player handled the audio without a complaint. So be warned—unless you know with 100 percent certainty what your DVD player is capable of, you stand a serious chance at having no audio while watching Pickpocket.
Then again, if you actually manage to get the audio to play, the sound fidelity is fairly lousy. Before the opening credits even begin, a high-pitched whine can be heard that remains throughout the entire feature, and it drove me nuts. Atmospheric noises are mixed artificially loud in Pickpocket, intentionally so; every noise has been captured with such zealous over-the-top realism that it creates a singularly unique experience I found memorable. Listening to a man drink a glass of water sounds like an oil liner dumping millions of gallons of black cargo into the sea. Still, that high-pitched whine gave me a headache.
Only one extra is offered, but it is a good one—a 15-minute interview with director/actor Linton Semage discussing the cinema scene in Sri Lanka, his history and involvement in social activity and street performances, and some of the themes he tried to deliver in his film. It sheds some light onto the film, to say the least.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The agonizingly, painstaking pace of Pickpocket is so extreme as to be almost unbearable. Kamrul spends a few minutes looking at his wife before leaving his house and walking for five minutes down the railroad tracks. At the end, he stops, thinks for a few minutes, then begins the walk—in real time—back to his abode. Then he does it again, this time in the rain.
Congratulations. You've just watched half of Pickpocket. Was it good for you too?
Pickpocket is a beautiful and mysterious film, but will only find true appreciation with art-house buffs. Delicate and fragile, it is a film undone by its brutally slow pacing and excessively drawn-out plot, frustrating and uncomfortable like a root canal. Even worse, what genuine merit and fascination the film has is overshadowed by its flawed technical presentation.
Still, after seeing Pickpocket, I'd love to see more cinema from this part of the world make it to our shores. Sri Lanka clearly has some talented filmmakers at work.
There is potential here, but most people wouldn't give Pickpocket their pocket change.
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