Pickpocket (2001)
Pathfinder Home Entertainment
Cast: Linton Semage
Extras: Interview, Biography, Still Gallery, Trailer

Sri Lankan cinema has yet to catch on in the Western world, and judging from this release, it probably won't for some time. That is not to say that Linton Semage's "Pickpocket" is a bad film. In fact, there is a lot to be praised here, if you stick with it. The film, however, is definitely a product of its culture, one that Americans in general know very little about. The political and social structures of Sri Lanka lie at the heart of "Pickpocket," and I am sure that much of the power of this movie is lost on viewers (including myself) who are not overly familiar with the country. As a fan of world cinema, I open myself to films of all nations and languages, and I count this among the more unusual movie experiences I have had in a while.

In the poorest region of a Sri Lankan village, a young pickpocket, Kamal (Linton Semage), spends his days lifting wallets from wealthier villagers in order to support his pregnant wife. Though she urges him to give up his life of petty crime and go straight, Kamal refuses to take up a steady job, apparently blind to the misery that he brings to his wife and ultimately to his victims. One day, as he goes through the wallet of his latest victim, he is surprised to find a photograph of his wife. Confused and angered, he begins to search for the man in order to find out what relationship he shares with his wife.

From the very beginning, Kamal's marriage seems strained. After discovering the picture, Kamal only begins to neglect his wife even more, even turning his back on her when she is in pain. He never mentions the photo to her nor questions her about her past. Instead, he secretly hunts down the wallet's owner, a search that quickly grows into an obsession. Everything around him seems to take on a different meaning, and as he comes closer to finding the man, Kamal increasingly loses touch with reality.

This story may sound like an intriguing mystery, and in the hands of an American director, it probably would be. For Linton Semage, however, the story is used more as a framework for a strong political message about the poor in Sri Lanka. If there is one thing the movie does well, it is capturing the utter destitution of the main characters. Semage is no stranger to this type of life, and he impeccably recreates it in this film. His actors are naturalistic and could very well have been plucked from the street just for the movie. The film is bathed in sweat from the smoldering sun, and we can practically smell the atmosphere.

What is perhaps not handled quite so deftly is the narrative aspect of the film. It took me a very long time to fully get a grasp on what was happening and allow myself to be taken in. Dialogue is kept to an extreme minimum, allowing the story to be told primarily through striking visuals and heightened sound effects. At only 77 minutes (the package incorrectly marks it at 85), the movie nonetheless seems to last forever. Some scenes are just too long, while others are done with a dreamy essence that, in some ways, undermines the grittiness of the mise en scène. This might appeal to true art-house buffs, though even for them it may take a second viewing to fully appreciate the complex structure. On the other hand, there is no way this film could ever hope to have a mainstream American audience.

Pathfinder Home Entertainment is distributing "Pickpocket," and their release is definitely something to talk about. The film is presented in a fullframe aspect ratio, and I am guessing that this is most likely correct, as nothing seems to be missing from the edges. In spite of the movie's young age, the original film negatives were apparently not in the greatest shape. Still, Pathfinder obviously didn't go to any extra trouble to clean it up. As a result, grain and very noticeable damage marks pop up throughout the movie, and several vertical white lines are visible the entire time. Image quality is soft, thought this may be intentional. Black levels are muddy, and colors are frequently muted or washed out.

Just as problematic is the soundtrack. Presented in its original Sinhalese language, the audio comes to us in an MPEG stream. While sound effects were deliberately intensified for this film, they simply come across as harsh and loud on this DVD. There is no subtlety or depth in the audio. Instead, all of the sounds just seem to thunder and clash together, making this a fairly painful experience. There is also a distinct hissing in the background. To make matters worse, the (often inaccurate) English subtitles are burned onto the film.

Luckily, Pathfinder does provide a few nice features, starting with a 16-minute interview with director and actor Linton Semage. He provides a good overview of Sri Lankan cinema and his own background in political "street plays." He also talks extensively about his character in "Pickpocket," shedding some light on the economic conditions in Sri Lanka that helps us put the story into context. Following this is a concise biography of Semage, a very nice photo gallery, and a trailer.

While "Pickpocket" has its virtues, I do not see it finding a vast audience in this country. Art-house and foreign-film fans may appreciate it, but its plodding nature and confusing structure keep me from eagerly recommending it even to them. I consider myself a patient viewer, but even I had trouble getting through this. If you do manage to get through it, you will very likely feel rewarded, but it's a tough trek that may not seem worth it on the surface. Hopefully, Sri Lanka's film industry is not resting its laurels solely on this director, because there appears to a fascinating cinema hidden in this culture that we are not yet aware of.