There are myriad ways in which religions control the social, familial and personal lives—and even death—of people. As a highly structured and hierarchical religion, Catholicism arguably exhibits this control over the communities of faithful in the most effective way. The more the people are vulnerable and poor, the more this control will be.
It is in the backdrop of such a poor and vulnerable Syrian Catholic community in the high ranges of Kerala—a state where there is a sizable Catholic population—that ace director Don Palathara set his first three features, Shavam, Vith and 1956, Central Travancore. In his sixth feature, Family, Palathara comes back to this familiar terrain to sculpt a dark and daring film that explores the acts of two powerful institutions—family and religion.
Catholicism sees both the church and the family as institutions with crucial roles in preaching the good-bad binary and inculcating Christian moral values in individuals at a very young age. Family, however, raises the question of whether these institutions—in which patriarchy makes things favourable for men—act what they preach: or whether these institutions ask people not to speak about, or trivialise or hide certain “sins”, to save the face of these institutions!
In a 2021 interview with THE WEEK, Palathara said: “I come from a highly religious community and family. The church has had a major influence on our family. There are many priests and nuns in my family. From nursery to high school, I studied in Catholic institutions. So, this power relationship with the church was always there. Before the age of 10, I had even wished to become a Catholic priest.”
The filmmaker did not become a priest as he wished in his childhood, but priests and nuns and the church have become crucial characters in his cinematic narratives over the last nine years. And, Family is arguably his most critical take on the “cover-up culture” enabled by the agents of faith.
The film primarily follows a man named Sony (Vinay Fortt), who is seen as a do-gooder in the church and community. He is a soon-to-be teacher in the government-aided school owned by the church; jobs and livelihood are, of course, ways in which religions acknowledge loyalty. Sony advises youth in his community to study and earn a government job. He also leads some of the social service activities that are conducted under the aegis of the church. He feeds the hungry, visits the sick and buries the dead as a “good Christian”. However, beneath this sheathe of goodness hides a paedophile and manipulator.
Family is a film that uses a minimalist and ingenious approach to explore the complex and dangerous personality of Sony. Palathara drops subtle hints about Sony’s character in the very first scenes, by showing him keenly watching a 'margamkali' (a Syrian Christian dance form) performance by a group of teenage girls. Sony creates victims of his predatory behaviour both within his family and outside. And, the film does cover the kind of trauma and psychological stress and struggle these victims also undergo. Sony’s gaslighting and opportunism are explored via his romantic relationship with Neethu (Nilja K. Baby)—to whose home Sony gains access after a tragedy.
However, the most crucial thing this writer felt about Family is that it just not sees all these as isolated incidents or “sins” by an individual. It goes much beyond that and looks at everything from a higher plain—and criticises the system that enables a favourable atmosphere for predators. It also talks about how the system shuts the voices of people—especially women—who open up about these dirty secrets within the family and the community.
Family is written by Palathara and Sherin Catherine. The dialogues are top-notch, and the duo sticks to that classic maxim of screenwriting: “less is more”. This is particularly evident in the way they touch on certain sensitive topics like inter-religious romantic relationships, that are discussed in contemporary Kerala, with at most subtlety. The script also is backed by good research on the various rituals of Syrian Christians as well as the complex power hierarchies within the Syrian Christian families with priests and nuns.
The film shows how religion could offer a kind of “closure” for “sinners” via its “retreats” and support systems. But it raises the question: “But what about the victims of these ‘sins’; who will give closure for the trauma they suffer!”
There is ample employment of static shots in Family, that are effectively used to convey the different moves and shades of Sony. There are also some marvellous experimentations in the cinematography section handled by Jaleel Badusha. An example is using just a dot of light in an otherwise completely dark screen to show a girl eloping from her home.
Fortt’s performance is top-notch—arguably one of the best in his career. Also, praiseworthy are the crucial roles played by Divya Prabha (as Rani, a relative of Sony) and K.K. Indira (as a nun, who is an aunt of Sony). Location sound by Adarsh Joseph Palamattom and Sound Design by Renganaath Ravee is also incredible.
Family had its world premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and the Indian premiere at Bangalore International Film Festival. The film deserves a place among the contemporary classics of Malayalam cinema.