A leopard is lurking somewhere inside the reaches of the mountains of Idukki, where Don Palathara’s new film Family begins. Neither the leopard nor the impending narrative puzzle reveal itself squarely until the very end of this masterful work, which revolves around a man who might just be too good to be true. (Also read: All India Rank review: Varun Grover makes a tender, crowd-pleasing directorial debut)
Written by Don Palathara and Sherin Catherine, Family revolves around a tightly knit community of Christians where the smallest of whispers travel far, where the thick layer of greenery begins to feel like a blinding imposition. There is the central presence of the church, whose codes are established early on with the staging of a traditional Christian wedding where a barber seeks the permission to ‘beautify’ the groom. Quietly, the local do-gooder Sony (Vinay Forrt) is introduced, whose actions will inform the space and overarching framework of Family. A well known face in the community, Sony is always there to help- attending funerals, volunteering when the local parish priest asks, even readily agreeing to tutor the friend’s child who is weak in Maths.
Yet, the devil lies in the details. Suspicion arises when a pregnant woman (an excellent Divya Prabha), catches Sony coming out of a room with a child. He says he was searching for wine bottles. She has a gnawing feeling, and this suspicion slowly but surely adds to more questions surrounding Sony. A key scene unfolds where the child, who seeks tuition from Sony, hides behind the door of her own home when she senses his arrival. Sony’s younger sibling (Mathew Thomas) also shares a certain amount of deliberate indifference towards him- note how they communicate at different scenes depending on their surroundings. As more questions arise, the film takes shape into a double-edged wound, festering under the layer of normalcy.
Family takes time to construct its world with a keen eye for space, minimalist dialogue and static shots. But when all the threads connect, it creates a truly chilling effect. The camerawork by Jaleel Badusha is brutally effective- strategically placed at a distance from the viewer, yet unerringly observant. Dramatic revelations or sudden bursts of dialogues are replaced with a surgical precision into the mundane. The smallest of tremors take shape to emerge into a uncompromising web of deception and manipulation. This is a filmmaker inviting his audience to slow down and follow, never providing them with a series of narrative landmarks to arrive easily at the destination. The closer you look, the more he reveals.
The reticent structure of Family that takes shape in 111 minutes, gradually reclaims its power by the last act with sledgehammer urgency. Its frightening composure slowly gives way to a disquieting, horrific denouement. Vinay Forrt is fascinating to watch as Sony, allowing room for his performance as a good Christian man to grow colder and colder with the unraveling of the film. By keeping the story so pointedly specific, Palathara is inviting the audience to look at the world around. To look closer. Family hits like a cold blow at the senses. It is a deeply unsettling and ultimately rewarding experience that demands your attention.