April 9, 2009
Dark Night of the Soul, 1996
A transplantation of Leo Tolstoy's turn of the century novel, Resurrection from Tsarist Russia to modern day Sri Lanka, Prasanna Vithanage's Dark Night of the Soul also finds kinship with Shyam Benegal's Ankur and Carl Theodor Dreyer's The President in its potent examination of class division, spiritual desolation, and moral anxiety. Alternating between past and present, objective and subjective points of view, Vithanage retains the epic scope of Tolstoy's novel to cast middle-aged businessman, Suwisal's (Ravindra Randeniya) crisis of conscience as a metaphor for the country's unresolved postcolonial history that continues to foment social unrest. Having once seduced - then promptly abandoned - a servant girl, Piyumi (Swarna Mallawarachchi) in his youth, Suwisal finds himself once again holding her fate in his hands when he is called to serve as a juror in her murder trial after she, now reduced to prostitution, is accused of killing a client in an attempt to commit robbery.
Vithanage poses this idea of personal history as collective consciousness in Suwisal and Piyumi's intersecting fates after a twenty year separation, integrally linking the leftist movements of the late 1960s embraced by student radicals with the ongoing civil war. The duality is illustrated in an episode in which Suwisal and a friend reminisce about their involvement in an organized protest in 1969 that initially seems to reinforce, then negate their commitment to social justice, rationalizing that the ideal outcome would be for Piyumi to be found guilty without ever recognizing her former employer, thus avoiding any potential scandal. Their conversation reframes an earlier flashback in which university student Suwisal returns to the country and decides to briefly join the farmers in their harvest in between studies (a naïve attempt at worker solidarity that is reinforced in a shot of him removing his sandals to walk barefoot behind cattle). But his egalitarian gesture proves to be hollow. In a subsequent encounter, Suwisal, having already taken advantage of the trusting Piyumi, offers her a handful of money in lieu of undying devotion, and later ignores her pleas for help after discovering that she is pregnant. This interconnection between past transgression and present unrest is similarly suggested in Suwisal's return trips to the family mansion after a long absence, initially in his visit home to work on a Marxist thesis away from the chaos of campus protests (and brief his disinterested aunt on how his activism intersects with a global social revolution), and subsequently, to recuperate from the emotional toll of the trial, and is once again confronted with his own impotence after a group of tenant farmers ask for his help in finding their missing sons who have been rounded and disappeared in the waging of the protracted conflict.
At each juncture, Suwisal's actions prove to be in opposition: retreating to privilege amid calls for solidarity, and conforming to majority opinion in order to bring swift, if unjust, closure to a tainted past. Visually, Vithanage illustrates the disjunction through narrative ellipses that not only interweave past and present, but also between indeterminate presents that reflect Suwisal - and by extension, the country's - unreconciled conscience. Similar to Ritwik Ghatak, Vithanage also integrates dissonant, yet naturalistic soundscapes to reinforce rupture and conflict, most notably in the prefiguring sound of a crying woman at the empty mansion that is repeated in a subsequent, similarly dissociated shot of Suwisal taking a shower, and in the amplified sound of dust sheets being removed from furniture that reflects the implicit violence of his deeply buried transgression and the turmoil caused by its revelation. Closing with the shot of Piyumi walking away into the horizon, her haunting image becomes - like Suwisal's (and a nation's) process of redemption - a reflection of a shared uncertainty and broken humanity.