Reviews Short Narrative

Catharsis (2019) – 4 stars

Director: Thisen Umagiliya

Writers: Thisen Umagiliya & Sandali Pathirana

Cast: Moditha Dabare, Sandali Pathirana, Malinga de Silva, Athsara Kudagamage, Wageesha Salgadu

Running time: 27mins

It has been one of my long-term goals with Indy Film Library to chip away at some of the stigmas which are so lazily attributed to student films. They are, after all, the future; the very life-blood of the industry. At the same time, they are often braver and more inventive than the work of seasoned pros because they come from people who still dare to upset the status quo, or challenge the expectations of audiences, without fear of what it will mean for their comfortable careers.

While it does have examples of many of the vices which student cinema is often associated with, Thisen Umagiliya’s Catharsis is also an excellent demonstration of the difficult and purposefully uncomfortable work students can put out, which has the potential to shake us from our all-too-complacent lives on ideological auto-pilot. At just 17, there is a raw insight in his chaotic and creepy examination of the human psyche and its attempt to reconcile the pain it inflicts on others, which really makes something that could have been a rather pedestrian meditation stand out from the crowd.

A young man struggles to come to terms with his past actions. He hopes to finally address his implied trauma by utilising fiction as therapy – as so many writers have done before. However, his attempts at Catharsis are seemingly thwarted, as they still only yield a version of events which he attempts to pin blame on a malicious alter-ego he constructs for his main character (who also serves as our lead protagonist character for the bulk of the film.) If this sounds like a frustrating affair, rife with dead ends and a dissatisfying lack of closure, that is because it is – however, there is something courageous about that.

Many filmmakers Umagiliya’s age would hastily cram a hastily constructed plot device to tie everything up for the sake of the audience’s gratification, and undermine everything interesting they might have conveyed beforehand. Umagiliya’s refusal to deploy such a deus ex machina is to his great credit – along with co-writer Sandali Pathirana. Instead, a strange melange of seemingly disconnected motifs and events are left hanging in space, leaving us high and dry in our quest for answers; and to an extent that is quite clever – because it causes us to look at the ways we construct our own lives as narratives, with heroes and villains, and explaining away any moments which challenge this dichotomy with convenient myths about our inner-selves.

The technical aspects of this work broadly do an excellent job of conveying these themes. When Moditha Dabare – who plays the lead character in the actual protagonist’s novel – is confronted by his evil doppelganger, the lighting and use of shadows in his empty apartment make for an eerie, otherworldly feel. He is very clearly wrestling with ‘the other side’ of his personality in the novel – however as the story progresses, the lines between his light-filled ideal and the shadowy alternative blur. Reminiscent to the gravely tones of Lupita Nyong’o in US, Dabare – who is excellent in both roles – adopts a stuttering hiss to his voice when portraying his own worst enemy, while is steadily diminutive as his ‘true self,’ carrying himself with all the confidence of a beaten dog in the climactic scene of his story.

In the ‘real world,’ however, the author is disturbed by the subtext that is creeping into his work. Having hoped to address some great wrong he seems to have committed on a female friend while his ‘dark side’ took control, he increasingly realises that these are not distinct characters, but rather two aspects of the same whole – and that he cannot escape culpability for his less-desirable traits by attributing them to some great unseen Other. The film ends abruptly with this revelation – leaving us isolated with our thoughts, as they undoubtedly turn to actions in our own pasts which we are not proud of, and which we might well explain away as “being a different person” back then.

Of course, as interesting as it is, Catharsis is a long way from being perfect. Perhaps the most frustrating thing from a critic’s perspective is the lack of formal credits which accompany the film. When appearing in student films, actors (especially ones as young as these, who probably don’t have much else on their CV) will be hoping to give a good account of themselves to build a name for themselves in the industry. It is therefore of huge importance that critics, casting directors, and producers are able to clearly pick out which names go with which performances – whether or not the director feels it is artistically better to leave that as vague.

Indeed, I should have liked to have recommend many more of the cast besides the individual I have mentioned. Condemnably, however, the closing credits of Catharsis only gives us a list of names in order of appearance, but never with character names, or any visual guide as to who is who. Admittedly, in Sri Lanka, this might be less of an issue – but from the perspective of my Western ignorance, having rarely seen films or interacted with people from that country, I am completely in the dark as to which names might traditionally be assigned to men or women. As such, I can’t even guess who is who beyond Dabare – especially as the second person to ‘appear’ is the voice of his father over the phone. Whether his voice is credited at all is impossible to say, so I have no idea whether I might be wrongly attributing someone else’s performance to someone who has 10 seconds of dialogue and is never physically present.

At the same time, as is so often the case with student films, the soundtrack is horrendously heavy handed. Abrasive audio stings accompany moments of tension or fear, babying the audience into feeling a certain way in any given moment – and it is something many viewers will find overbearing, if not insulting. Nobody enjoys being micro-managed, and Umagiliya would do well to trust audiences to pick up on the vibe of his work without such hand-holding in the future – especially when utilising stock music, which is always best used minimally if at all.

At the same time, the ambitions behind the piece are more than a little out of sync at different points. Two key moments stick out, both relating to violence. When Dabare confronts a mugger, a laughable fist-fight breaks out, during which the scrawny youngster deploys the strength and ferocity of a bear trained in lethal martial arts. Here the ambitions were too high – and Umagiliya will need to spend longer training to shoot such action – which here is largely from the same angle – if he deems it necessary to include it at all in the future.

Moments later, meanwhile, Dabare is confronted by his seemingly omnipotent dark side. Unfortunately, the sinister style or the earlier scenes between the two is absent here, with our hero reclining in his brightly lit bedroom. The sparsely populated room has little in it besides his bed, a desk and a man-sized wardrobe – something which disappointingly goes unused.

A heavy knocking on a wooden door is added in via ADR, and the way the disconnected sound effect seems to float above the room leaves us guessing as to whether it is coming from the conventional entrance to his room, or the closet. As we see from the protagonist’s increasingly nervous disposition, his alter ego has been built up as an unstoppable Michael Myers type – something which having him emerge from all manner of different places could have helped the audience identify and relate to. Instead, the visibly light-weight teenager seems bound to Earthly conventions – detracting from much of the menace he might have had.

There are clear signs in Catharsis that Thisen Umagiliya and Sandali Pathirana have bright futures as writers, unafraid to challenge their audience, and unwilling to simplify what they have to say for the sake of the viewer’s comfort. Meanwhile, their cast have collectively shown that they are capable of effortlessly delivering dialogue as living human beings would. Those traits bode well for whatever this team of young talents produces next, as they learn from the marginal shortcomings of this particular project.

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