Blue skies. A tree branch blows ever so slightly in the wind. It’s peaceful and quiet. A bird lands on the branch and the scenery becomes a marvellous example of the beauty of nature. The simple beauty, that which we don’t have to analyse or study to understand. We only need to contemplate.
It is a scene that we often wish ourselves back to in P.S. Vinothraj’s Pebbles (2021), which won this year’s IFFR Tiger Award. Once the film starts in earnest, it becomes a mental escape from the violence and the anger we are facing for the next hour or so.
It many ways, Pebbles presents itself as a ‘walking film’, a film which depends on the characters’ movements around the barren, empty landscape. It is a conflicting enterprise Vinothraj attempts here: he creates a push-and-pull between speed and slowness, between stasis and movement.
A man, angry and sweating in the heat, is making his way to an elementary school. He’s almost stomping his feet on the ground. The sound of his bare feet on the dusty, hard soil are with us for most of the film. It’s a small, curious detail which I picked up. I’m someone who listens to footsteps in every film. God knows why, but I reckon that this focus arose with my interest in Slow Cinema. There is so much walking involved and the sound of footsteps is almost always isolated, so much so that it becomes heightened. I’m thinking of Béla Tarr’s film especially. Werckmeister Harmonies… Sátántangó…
In Pebbles, the soundscape is different, and therefore striking. The people walk bare feet and yet, this very sound of naked feet hitting the soil, becomes so isolated, so heightened throughout the film that it adds to the aggressive atmosphere. Actually, I struggle to explain it well with the words I have at my disposal. Nevertheless, it is an essential element of the film, which shouldn’t be neglected in its reading.
Do you like me or your mother?
The man stomps into several schoolrooms to find his son. We don’t know what happened, but the boy gets up, saddles his school bag and follows his father, who doesn’t bother waiting for the boy. Rather, he continues his angry walk before turning around and asking his son the immoral question about whom he prefers: mother or father?
The boy, in his stupor, remains quiet. He is just eyeing his father.
This scene – the boy eyeing the father, the father almost looking like a predator eyeing his prey – repeats several times throughout the film. The boy doesn’t communicate with words. He responds to his father with silence, with his body language. How often has he done this before?
The little boy reminded me a lot of two other boys who had the same sense of innocence, the same body language. I’m thinking of the boys in Semih Kaplanoglou’s Bal (Honey) and in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. There is a sort of fascination with the adult world, but also apprehension, fear, and many questions. What do the boy’s dark eyes really say? Do they express defeat? Anger? Hopefulness in that things may change one day? Little by little we learn that this is the boy’s daily life, his daily fight: living with an alcoholic, violent father.
He uses his boy as a mediator, as a means of pressure on his wife, who seemingly fled to her own family to escape the violent outbursts of her husband. The man takes the boy to a bus stop, where they wait in the heat for a bus to take them to a small village. It is in this village that Vinothraj shows ingenuity. Up to this point, I felt unsure about what he really wanted. He tried to use all available shooting methods at his disposal, it felt like he had a list, and he wanted to tick all the boxes. The persistent shift in aesthetics made the film feel shaky because the director was.
Once in the small village, however, Vinothraj stopped shaking for a few minutes. In fact, he used a mobile, circulating camera shot that connected the characters to their places and showed the relationships between them. The father sends the boy to look for his mother in the village. He tells him to ask her to come home, or else he would marry another woman. The boy starts walking, and the camera follows him on his way. Like a camera à la Béla Tarr or Bi Gan (specifically in Kaili Blues), it shifts seamlessly from one character to another, follows them, lets them disappear and reappear. It’s a beautiful choreography that made me see what the director was capable of.
From now on, you no longer have a mother, only a father.
But things are changing fast. Full of anger, the father starts a fight with his brother-in-law. He promises to kill his wife that same day, and, having missed the bus home, a long (walking) journey home begins. The boy runs ahead, afraid of his angry father, but he will soon catch up with the boy. The two walk through a hostile landscape. It is almost as if the two are the only living beings around.
It is on their long way home that Pebbles turns into a usual film with no surprises. The director seemingly used everything available in his (visual) repertoire and had to finish off the film with standard shot-reverse shots towards the end, with little that keeps the viewer hooked. That said, Vinothraj’s debut feature is promising. The story is moving and engaging, the frames in part strong in their visual conception. What weakens the film is the director’s experimentation with different techniques. The camera doesn’t get a proper place in the film, a kind of secret lens through which we see the scenes unfold. Instead, Vinothraj forces too much: moving, still, slow motion, circulating, etc. It’s too much to be effective (and reasonable). Nevertheless, I’m curious to see more of Vinothraj in the future to see how his career develops.