Sri Lanka / 2001 / Sinhala

Directed by Linton Semage

With Linton Semage, Dihani Ekanayake, Gayani Gisanthika

Still from 'Pickpocket'It is early in the morning and a quiet, nondescript man named Kamal appears from the darkness of his rude shack in an urban slum, leaving his young, pregnant wife Vasanthi and, as commuter trains rattle past his front door, goes to the city for work. In town he nimbly hops on and off busses, dodges traffic while looking for anyone preoccupied enough not to notice him taking their wallet. Having gotten a successful catch, he takes a walk over to the beach and inspects the contents of the wallet. To his surprise he finds a photograph of his own wife. He becomes obsessed, disturbed by this discovery, but on returning home he cannot ask her the meaning of it. Resentful of his line of work, of the pain that he causes others to put food on their table, she admonishes him to go straight – and he has barely anything to say to her in his defense.

He begins to search for the man who had the photograph, to find the truth behind its unexpected discovery, and his quest takes him outside of the city. Still carrying the man’s wallet, he inadvertently impersonates him when a railway policeman inspects his identification. He goes out to the country’s central highlands, takes a bus through rolling green tea hills before he comes to the right village. Meanwhile back at home Vasanthi is close to delivery, a time when she is in need of the most support, and their neighbor, a young woman named Ameena, is the one who selflessly looks after her. Whenever Visanthi’s husband is home he looks at her with a hatred seemingly immured in concrete, one that explodes within him but that finds no expression in his somber countenance.

Kamal’s tormentor is the photograph itself, and he looks at it often, turning it into an object of scopophilia. The notion that another man could possibly mean more to Vasanthi than he does is not nearly as painful as having to contemplate his own failings, the ways in which he wrongs her every day. The presence of what he now holds so closely – a reproduction of the face of the woman with whom he shares his home but from whom he is so remote – burns a hole through his pocket. And perhaps he is as a photograph to her, being an image of a man she once knew, now divested of compassion, of life. Although he says little, he exudes the frustration of someone whose livelihood and existence hinge on not being detected, on being anonymous, but who is forced to live an exposed life in a house girded by railroad tracks. Taking wallets is one way of experiencing other lives, of getting to inhale fresh air momentarily.

Still from 'Pickpocket'The plotline of Kamal’s vengeful search for the man he robbed becomes one of several spokes in the wheel of the narrative, introducing the desperation and mistrust of the husband and wife’s relationship, and is revisited periodically throughout the film. The two characters fret over the pregnancy, seemingly scared to contemplate what life will be like for the child; they occasionally see the genial (and possibly also expecting) young Muslim couple who live across the tracks; and they cower at the hands of Kamal’s boss’s thugs (on the Subcontinent, even petty theft is micromanaged). At the heart of the story is how the impersonal, alienated, and frustrated life of the city has lost touch with the seemingly more connected life of the village. The rift between husband and wife reflects this bereavement for a common bond between people, as well as the modernizing pressures that have reduced their lives to the barest, most pitiless type of subsistence.

Semage’s earlier film, The Outcast (1998), also has a protagonist whose behavior is very much at odds with those around him, and whom the audience may find morally disagreeable. While Pickpocket lacks the philosophical ambiguity of that film, wherein the main character’s self-interested actions and defiance of the greater good confound until the very last, there is nonetheless a gauze of apprehension surrounding Kamal’s nocturnal meandering and hurried footsteps, an inscrutability to his frustration and violence. While the questions he faces are hard, the answers, while often painful, are not incomprehensible. For certain it is made clear that he and Vasanthi have fallen on hard times and that, with all the economic pressures mounting around him, he has little choice in what profession he engages. And, paying kickbacks to the local pickpocket boss, he does not even get to keep all of the ill-gotten gains that his wife hates so bitterly. She is so principled and he, forced down by circumstance, is past morality, unable to entertain such a luxury.

If the film is ever, at times, difficult to follow, that may be due to its extreme economy of dialogue, as the audience is asked to monitor the story mainly through the actions and gestures, even glances that are seen, and many are not used to doing this for feature length duration. It is easy enough to become mesmerized, to miss a detail here or a sudden shift there. But by and large its calm, its bleakness, is altogether captivating. It is languorous and meditative while at the same time seethingly fraught, a film fairly beaded with sweat. Although the protagonist’s decisions are often beyond the reach of sympathy, that does not make the resulting pain that he brings upon himself and others any less acute, its moral repercussions any less tangible.

Still from 'Pickpocket'


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