by Thilak S. Fernando

Ananatha Rathriya (Dark Night of the Soul) and Pura Handa Kaluwara (Death on a full moon day), two internationally acclaimed films (with English sub-titles) will be screened at the Edgware Cinema (opposite Edgware Underground) on Sunday, 25 February at 12 noon, The talented and forthright young director, Prasanna Vithanage, has directed both films.

Anantha Rathriya is based or rather inspired by Tolstoy’s novel The Resurrection, and has participated in several international film festivals. It won a Jury’s Special Mention at the first Pusan International Film Festival in 1996 and a host of awards from the Sri Lanka Film Critic’s Forum for the most outstanding film including Best Director and Best Script Writer. Prasanna Vithanage has relocated the script to the Sri Lankan ethnicity by changing perspective of the film and focussing on a successful, middle-aged Company Director to reveal the tragedy of a man’s failure to absolve him of a guilt centralising on the pathos of a woman driven to prostitution and murder.

In the film, this elite Company Director Suwisal (Ravindra Randeniya) who had a casual relationship with a much younger fiancé (Swarna Mallawarachchi) is filled with the darkness of isolation and alienation from his own inner self. Prasanna Vithanage has scripted the film infusing it with a brooding, slow pace and filled with the darkness of isolation and alienation of Suwisal. Suwisal is suddenly devastated when he is chosen to be on the panel of a jury for a murder trial where the defendant is his aunt’s young servant woman Piyum (Swarna Mallawarachchi), whom he had seduced, impregnated and ditched twenty five years ago. Although Piyum acts not to show any signs of recognition, yet Suwisal is forced into an inner journey of disturbed soul swinging past which he wants to forget but haunted by hate, guilt and a perforating conscience which he cannot escape from.

The cowardice of Suwisal is never articulated, but enriched by excellent performance by Ravindra Randeniya. A brilliant performance by Swarna Mallawarachchi projects Piyum’s strength more through her facial expressions and little dialogue.

Anantha Rathriya is an aggressive film where violence is articulated and expressed more by its silence than by its vocal and visual presence. In this way, the Director paints the mindscapes of the characters in a vivid way. This is an unusual film made from a strong script backed up by impressive performances and technical values. Precise editing, a meditative pace, mood-lit cinematography, pregnant silence and eloquent sound effects make Prasanna’s second feature film a total cinematic experience.

Pura Handa Kaluwara (Death on a Full Moon) gives the unique opportunity for those in the UK to set eyes on, as this film has been banned in Sri Lanka. In 1977 it was recognised as the best International film of the year; it won the Best Actor Award (Joe Abeyweickrema) at the Singapore International Film Festival ; The Grand Prix Award - Golden Unicorn at Amiens International Film Festival ’99 and the International Critics Prize Fribourg at the International film festival, Switzerland in 1999. (It was the only film which has acclaimed most prestigious awards by a Sri Lankan film since Gamperaliya).

This is a simple story based in a rural village in Anuradhapura projecting profound underneath issues of Buddhist-Sinhalese chauvinism and the great contradiction between bigoted ideas and what exactly is happening in this remote village. Director Prasanna Vithanage, from a personal experience, brings out a true to life story of youths in this village joining the army in search of a job due to lack of employment. Unwritten though, parents probably know that their children would be killed in fighting once joined the army but cannot stop them because the unemployed youth are prepared to sacrifice themselves for compensation payment their families get if they die in action.

The film Pura Handa Kaluware tries to explore the connection between religion and society. The film rolls at the beginning with Buddhist chanting, which is connected to daily chanting that takes place every morning in real life at the scared city of Anuradhapura. It attempts to portray the contradiction between these chauvinistic rituals and what is happening in the village - i.e. delivery of soldiers’ corpses in body bags.

A rural poor villager’s opposition to the war is naïve and passive. The reality of the war in some ways is beyond him. This is what the film tries to project. Wannihamy (Joe Abeywickrema) is projected as a simple courageous, determined villager who can predict rain from the wind and clouds but is unable to grasp or accept that his son could be brought back to him in a sealed coffin. This issue is beyond his comprehension.

On a full moon day, the Army returns the body of Bandara, in a sealed coffin, his son who served the army. Wannihamy refuses to sign the papers, which will entitle the family to the Government’s compensation payment for his son’s death in action. A Buddhist monk tells the old man that his son is a war hero and wants to construct a memorial (a bus stop) in the name of the valiant son of the soil who gave his life to his country . The father delicately discounts it by saying that building of bus shelters and ‘other things’ should be the State or the Village Council’s responsibility anyway! Incorporating such subtle scenes Prasanna has used such Buddhist ‘service’ in the film not as some kind of tourist attraction, but to debunk the rituals.

The film is sensitive in many respects. It highlights an epoch from 1982 to 1994, the ‘Premadasa garment factory era’, where a working class proletariat was born in the villages and the highest prostitution rate reaching the town Anuradhapura. Sunanda, the younger daughter, silently accepts her father’s decision and finds a job in a garment factory. Somay, her boy friend, earns pittance as a brick-maker. He too feels like Bandara once did, that the only way to earn a decent living is to join the Army. However, Sumay feels that Sunanda is not telling the truth about her involvement in prostitution and goes to the garment factory where she works and sees soldiers looking for girls there. He feels helpless, infuriated and enraged. The film attempts to show how the war has eroded basic human values and the perception of Sri Lanka as some great Buddhist civilisation

Stricken with desperate hardship and poverty, and left nothing more than cannon fodder, Wannihamy retains the clarity of vision that gives him the wisdom reaching far beyond what the eye can see. He acts in such away in believing that the war cannot kill his son. He finally picks up the mammoty to dig up and open his son’s sealed coffin knowing that he will invalidate the compensation claim.

Prasanna Vithanage is a renowned, upcoming and a prize-winning director who has won nine Sri Lankan awards for his film Sisila Gini Gani (Ice on Fire) in 1992 which included The Best Director. His subsequent Anantha Rathriya (Dark Night of the Soul) was written and directed by him.