Friday 23 September 2022

On demand: "Pebbles"

Over its 76 minutes, the Tamil film
Pebbles describes a world that stretches as far as the eye can see. Director P.S. Vinothraj takes a simple, there-and-back story - irascible father (played by Karuththadaiyaan) drags son (Chellapandi) out of school so as to travel to a neighbouring village and reunite with the wife who walked out on them both - and bestows the highest conceivable level of attention to its passing, revealing detail. A pole on the bus carrying dad and lad from here to there rattles, becoming another of the film's myriad loose connections. Mice are smoked out of their burrows and readied for eating - a tougher detail, but also one that situates us some distance from the usual social niceties. Two village women provide a running (or, more specifically, walking) commentary on the sorry state of this particular marriage. At every point, Vinothraj and his able directors of photography (themselves a pair: Vignesh Kumulai and Parthib) find new ways of reframing this familial split, its implications and repercussions. One overhead shot of a madonna-and-child descending from a bus is so astronomically elevated that you wonder how on earth they got it. (It's too steady for a drone, and cranes surely don't go up that high without gathering ice.)

The film proves no less alert and dynamic in its shooting of movement. The father is often followed handheld from behind, a tactic that proved so effectively in those early Dardennes films (before becoming an arthouse cliché elsewhere), which here allows us to bear witness to a character prone to walking away from the chaos he initiates. But then we see him from the front, barrelling towards us, an image of masculine brute force finally stopped in his tracks when the child strands them both in the middle of nowhere. Out on the plains, in a wilderness that is at once literal and figurative, the film becomes a study in body language, setting aggressive man against gentle boy - the latter evidently his mother's son, at least halfway tempted to walk away himself. Father, by contrast, ploughs on: wilful, stewing when he's not outwardly raging, ever more isolated and alone, not really looking where he's headed. An insert of a painful injury may just inspire a twitch - just a twitch - of sympathy for this headstrong lummox, but the closing moments offer a brilliant counterpoint: an entirely static tableau of women at a watering hole, demonstrating a patience the chumps back home don't possess. A simple film, then - a slice of life, expertly sanded down to the point where it becomes a parable - yet a richly imaginative and striking one: there aren't that many directors working in contemporary world cinema who've shown this much determination to use the full width of the frame, and every possible plane within it.

Pebbles is currently available to stream via All4.

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