This screening takes place with the support of the Film Critics Circle of Australia.
Lester James Peries
Lester Peries (born 1919) has worked on short films and documentaries as well as features, with subjects as eclectic as malaria, motorists, family life and (in the case of Nidhanaya) a murder suicide. He made the first Sri Lankan film to get an Oscar nomination. Winner of the Silver Lion at the 1972 Venice film festival, The Treasure is his most acclaimed work, frequently topping best Sri Lankan films of all time polls.
To a Western audience looking for points of reference, Nidhanaya might sometimes resemble a Merchant Ivory film, in its attentiveness to luxurious settings and ornate costumes as well as its relatively slow pace. Its plot might be taken faintly to echo Jane Eyre or even The Shining. The film is too sedate and statuesque to be melodramatic; suspense seems less important than atmosphere. The hero foreshadows the climax at the start for viewers who have not picked up on other clues from the opening titles.
The atmosphere in Nidhanaya, though, is dense and odd, with its eeriness amplified by an excellent musical score, especially on drums. A wealthy but evidently idle middle-aged man, Willie, bound by a family promise to retain his grand house and garden, happens across a treasure map. Where “X” marks the spot in classic treasure hunts, in Nidhanaya sacrificing a virgin is meant to help Willie find the treasure cache. Willie’s hand seems forced by a pompous, callous British official, who appears like a distant cousin of the sordid British functionaries in Lagaan.
Having first spotted such a virgin, one called Irene, in a dug-out canoe, Willie marries her. The camera lingers for long and loving interludes on Irene’s face. In a semi-dream sequence when Irene dances with Willie, she is incandescently beautiful. At other times, though, Irene often looks forlorn, as though anticipating a sorry fate. For his part, Willie seems to have no redeeming features, other than – belatedly – a guilty conscience. He also sports a bristling moustache which would identify him as a villain in any of the world’s cinematic traditions.
Nidhanaya is celebrated as among the finest achievements of Sri Lankan cinema. The film contains little which is idiosyncratically Sri Lankan, and, indeed, only a few shots of the country itself (a house, a rock, a river). A greedy speculator desperate to save his fortune, an entrapped woman despairing of her marriage, a treasure map, those archetypes would play equally well elsewhere. The particular charm of Nidhanaya lies in its tight focus, and, more than anything else, in the anxiety and foreboding which the heroine manages to convey.
Director: Lester James Peries, Musc: Premasiri Kemadasa, Screenplay: Tissa Abeyekara. Cast:Gamini Fonseka plays Willie, the anti-hero, and Malini Fonseka his wife, Irene. Other characters are reduced to bit parts or cameos: the film is claustrophobically focused on the lead couple.
Sri Lanka 1973 100 minutes Sinhala language, English subtitles
Notes by Mark Pierce