I’ve watched this movie twice now. Once really seriously, pausing and rewinding if I thought I missed something, and once more just skimming, letting it play while I brushed my teeth in the morning or wrote blog posts at night. And I know I have still missed SO MUCH. But I am going to do my best to try to understand it and present it to you.
I also watched City of God the same way, by the way. Straight through with pausing and rewinding and focus. And then a second time while blogging and eating dinner and all. And then a third and fourth and fifth time just in the background of my life continuously. And of course I had already seen Angamaly Diaries. And I think the best way to look at these films is by finding the technically impossible accomplishment that they best feature, and then assuming that is also a sign of what is the deeper meaning to them.
In Amen, that technical accomplishment is the creation of pure beauty. Such a general description! I guess what I mean is the visuals. The lighting, the movement of the camera, the purity of the colors. The cinematography, if I were to use a technical term. But it’s more than cinematography, it’s also the ideas for the things that are being filmed, like teenage female angels complete with wings (homage to Charlie Chaplin perhaps?), or a golden clarinet, or a woman in a shining window trapped behind bars. It’s like he looked at every visual and wasn’t satisfied until it was a glowing explosion of light.
(Chaplin and his teenage angel in The Kid. 3 years later, she would be married to him and pregnant)
Which is our first distinctive visual of the film! A glowing explosion of light. And everything we see after that has a kind of golden glow to it, as though it was all touched by that explosion.
But I am getting ahead of myself! Actors first. Fahadh Faasil does a good job, of course, because he always does. And Indrajith Sukumaran was good as well, although I was more impressed with him in City of God. Swathi Reddy, the heroine, I thought did an okay job. Until just now when I looked up her filmography and saw that she was the heroine of North 24 Kaatham, and I didn’t recognize her at all! It was even the same cast, and in the same year. But she played a completely different sort of character. Almost more different than Fahadh did, Fahadh always tends to play internal and quiet characters. But Swathi went from a caring practical confident social worker, to an innocent village girl constantly fighting with her family, all in the same year!
Oh, and the other heroine, she had another surprise in her filmography! Only this role and something called “MTV Rush”. But two writing credits! Wazir and David. So she is another one of those multi-talented young Malayalees. Or Malayalees by adoption, I don’t know where she is actually from.
The “villain”, Joy Mathew, is another multi-talent, actor and director. And apparently something else as well outside of the film world, because there is a massive gap in his official filmography between 1986, when he made a big splash as an actor in an art movie, and 2012, when he came back in character roles and as a director. Does anyone know what he was doing in the interim? If so, please tell me! Oh, and he does a great job with his role too.
(Here he is in that 1986 movie)
But really, all of the actors are fighting against the directing a little bit in this movie. Because it is so consciously stylized, the actors can’t really do much beyond hitting their marks and saying their lines. Not a lot of space for improvisation, and no possibility of distracting the audience from the beauty of the shots through their performance.
The beauty is just so over-whelming! Every shot is amazing. And I wonder if that is related to the theme of the film? Or if thinking about this theme inspired Pellissery to new heights? Because the whole idea of it is art for arts sake. To create beauty and be satisfied with that.
What little plot there is that holds the whole thing together revolves around the idea in Indrajith’s opening speech, that this is a village of love and music. To try to turn it into something else would be a damage to it’s purpose. And if you replace “music” with “beauty in general”, that is what this film is about as well. It is a pure expression of love and art and how following these two guides is a Holy task.
And that brings me back to the visuals of the film. Imaginative, gorgeous, incredible visuals. Art let loose to such a degree it overwhelms any story until all you can see is the gorgeous light of the images.
But, of course, there is technically a story. And I do need to talk about it so that I can get into a few more details about performance and so on. So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
There is a bit of a confusing structure to this film. But it is because everything is slightly heightened, slightly magical. Starting with the first images, a group of armed men confronting a church door in 679. The bang on the door, it opens, and the camera pulls back as we see a glorious stream of light burst forth from inside the church.
Oops, let me back up. The real opening is a prologue that has no purpose at all besides getting us a little used to the small world of this village. And a great opening image, the camera moving slightly below and looking up at an angle through a steering wheel at a little boy. And then pulling back to reveal that the wheel is not connected to anything.
The little boy finds a gold wrapped packet sitting perfectly in the hands of an old statue. His grandmother comes up behind him, the open the packet together, and find feces inside. The milkman comes up behind them, sees it as well, and at the same time neighbor drives buy and waves hello and tells them that if that is pork knuckles, they should make stew. The milkman says that he saw the neighbor around earlier, and the little boy’s family decides they need vengeance. So they wrap the package up again and give it to the other family. And back and forth and back and forth. Until finally it ends and the narrator announces that this is a story of the village, but it is not the story that he is going to tell us. And the “real” film starts.
(first with this great opening credits sequence, that sets the slightly surreal but beautiful tone)
It’s a fascinating opening, similar to the opening of Angamaly Diaries a little. Again, we have characters and a situation that will end up not being important. But in Angamaly Diaries, at least the situation gets tied back a little bit at the end. In this, it really never ties back. I think it would be better if it did, but it is still all right this way. It lets us, the viewer, get used to the style of film at the same time as learning about the kind of village this is. A village where everyone knows everyone else’s business and one random action can change everything. Oh, and one random prankster can upend everything, the end of the story reveals that the milkman is the one who left the package, and then randomly picked someone else to blame just to see what had happened.
And then real opening comes, with the light bursting forth from the church in the 600s. Which cuts to the same church, today, and the same group of men beating on the door. Only this time it is a recreation, and the only thing inside the church is a corrupt sexton trying to steal from the donation box. And there is a lovely rhyming shot with the opening explosion of light, this time from inside the donation box, a small rectangle of light in darkness, and the sexton’s eyes coming through and a bill floating up as he manages to grab it with his improvised tool. We have gone from massive light driving out darkness, to the ones who are supposed to be sharing that light, instead turning to the darkness of money and greed.
Plotwise, none of this matters. It’s just to establish that the current caretakers of the church are corrupt. And the later service, in which Joy Mathew as priest throws out a congregant for not paying attention to the service, establishes that they also care more about appearances than about the good of the congregation.
What matters most, but is not clear immediately, is what is happening with Fahadh. He is home, in bed, when his father and two angels wake him and give him a cold coffee. And tell him to play his clarinet. He rushes to the church, excited, and declares that tomorrow he will play in the band, for sure. But along the way he stops at Swathi Reddy’s house and parades before her window in his outfit, then plays her “La Vie En Rose”.
Side point, so interesting to hear all the western music in this film! “When the Saints Go Marching In”, “La Vie En Rose”, and generally the sound of a New Orleans jazz band more than anything else. And yet I also believe that this could be the sound of a church band in a village in Kerala. I’ve seen these bands in films before, and even at videos of real events, marching uniforms and drums and a few instruments, playing live music for weddings and funerals and festivals. And it was great for me personally, since I am slightly more familiar with the sound and behavior of jazz bands, than with classical Indian music. So the performance scenes and duets and so on made sense to me.
And at this point, our helpful narrator tells us that Fahadh and Swathi have been in love their whole lives, and we have a beautiful flashback of all their silent communications since childhood. This isn’t really a “love story” in the traditional sense, that is, it’s not a story in which the conflict and changes all happen in the context of the lovers’ relationship. No, it is a story about love. Fahadh and Swathi are devoutly in love when we first see them. And that never alters throughout the film. They are always devoutly in love and committed to each other, start to finish. What changes is all the things this love inspires.
But we’re not there yet! We’re not anywhere, we are just seeing all the beauty in this village, and all the threats to it. Swathi and Fahadh are being kept apart by her wealthy family. And the next day, Fahadh is kept from his destiny of being in the band by the Priest who is so obsessed with appearances and insists that he has control of the band, not the old bandleader. This is supposed to be a place of love and art, and the competing forces of pride and money are killing both. And Fahadh in particular is trapped from both sides.
It all comes to a head the next day, when the band loses the annual competition again. And we have one of the first truly spectacular set pieces of the film. An unbroken take of a musical battle between the winners of the band competition, from the other side of the lake, and our local group. Not only is it spectacular musically, and in performance with all the actors fully committing to expressing each line, but it weaves in and out of the small space of the local toddy shop, constantly re-staging itself, in an unbroken take of over 3 minutes. And then it ends with the camera moving back over the water! How do you even do that? Just amazing!
It distracts you from the plot, that this is supposed to be a moment of defeat for our characters, because the way it is presented is such a technical achievement. But maybe that’s the point? That sometimes something can be so beautiful, it is more important than the pain.
The pain doesn’t last long though, because enter Indrajith! An outsider to the village, he arrives on the small ferry, and while on it, sees a woman dancing, and asks if he can dance with her. They get off the ferry, and he is recognized by the church sexton as the brother of the wealthy couple from the across the lake who sponsor the rival band. The sexton is eager to get close to him and offers to take him wherever he wants. Indrajith asks to go to the church. Where, TWIST!!! He reveals himself as the new young priest assigned to this church. And Joy Mathew, the old priest, takes an immediate dislike to him.
And Indrajith brings changes immediately, taking control of the meeting called for the purpose of voting out funding for the band and inspiring the people to vote for it through calling for them to remember when the village meant “love and music”. He also immediately bonds with Fahadh as his own special project.
And, slowly, over the course of scene after scene, the conflicts of the film are filled in. Fahadh’s father was a brilliant clarinet player in the band, and the artistic partner of the elderly bandleader. He died, along with other band members, when the ferry sank, and that started the decline of the band. Fahadh is even more brilliant, but is shy about playing in public, he feels like he is drowning, thinking of his father. However for just Swathi, he can play and play amazingly. He needs to somehow get into the band, and then take them to victory.
Meanwhile, Swathi’s family is obsessed with money and wants to marry her off to someone fitting of their status. Swathi is determined and refuses to be quite, declaring when asked that she is engaged to Fahadh and will be marrying him, and often setting off family disputes about it.
Joy Mathew, the priest, is fully corrupted by money and pride. He wants control of his church and congregation and wants to destroy anything that stands in his way, from the band to his new assistant priest.
Indrajith has to fix all these problems, and deal with the issue of that young woman from the ferry, who has stayed in the village and fallen in love with him. It is handled very sweetly, she tells him “if you weren’t a Priest, I would ask you to be my boyfriend”, and he just smiles and says “I’ll consider it.”
As the film goes on, many things happen and at the same time nothing really happens. Fahadh and Swathi try to elope, are caught, and Indrajith arranges for Swathi’s family to bet her hand against the band competition. Evil Priest Joy Mathew arranges to give Swathi’s family the valuable contract to tear down and rebuild the ancient church building. And the wealthy couple from across the lake, Indrajith’s sister and brother-in-law, bring in a “ringer” to join their band, a famous musician who has “battled” the old bandleader twice before and declares that he only took this job in hopes of battling him again.
But none of this matters as much as the moments of pure beauty scattered through out the film. Like when Fahadh finally gets over his stage-fright, a magical moment of boats crossing the lake in darkness and the sound of a clarinet coming out. The bandleader answers it, they duet, and finally the two boats meet in the middle and Fahadh’s face is revealed. That’s what the movie is about, these moments of beauty. And the plot of the film argues that this is what life is about as well.
At the final battle of the bands, Fahadh and the outside musician duel it out. And as their music reaches its peak, Swathi is freed from her home by her grandmother beating down the door and runs into the crowd to see him, and the bandleader slips away into death. Love, life, death, it all is driven on by the moments of inspiration and beauty that drive out everything else.
And that is what finally divides our characters. Indrajith’s sister and brother-in-law may appear to be “evil”, they come from the other side of the lake, they delight in winning the competition and taunting the losers. But, in the end, they are still capable of admiring accomplishments and appreciating art. And so after Fahadh so clearly proves his superiority, they happily agree to the terms of the bet, giving up all their winnings and cups for the past years. And they are disgusted by Swathi’s family’s cowardice in going back on their agreement to allow Fahadh to marry Swathi.
So now all of this reasoning and agreements and effort has come to naught. The old church building will be torn down and Swathi will not marry Fahadh. And nothing seems able to stop it.
And this is where the film takes a turn. The crew comes in to take down the church, and they go to move the statue of the Saint who watches over it. And as they touch it, the light bursts out again. And there is the sound of a horse galloping. And we cut ahead to learn that everyone had a change of heart, Father Joy Mathew canceled the destruction of the church, and Swathi’s family married her to Fahadh.
And a few weeks later, Indrajith says goodbye to his almost girlfriend, she has to go back to France because her mother is ill. And as she gets on to the boat, Indrajith gets off it and goes to ask directions to the church. What?????
I see two interpretations for this. Either Indrajith was an avatar of the local Saint who appeared in the guise of a young Priest to solve all these problems, and then left before the “real” young Priest arrived. Or the French woman is just having a momentary vision as she leaves the village of the first time she saw the man she came. And I don’t think it is supposed to be definite one way or the other, I think it is supposed to be up to us to interpret. And for myself, I choose to think he was the Saint. He arrived, he joyfully joined in life and love and music. And he tried to help people to help themselves as much as possible. But when evil was too obdurate and there was no other option, he revealed himself in his full glory. And then left, having solved the problems of those he had come to serve.