Lijo Jose Pellissery’s 2013 Malayalam film Amen has all the elements that should make it a tailor made movie for me. It’s a quirky comedy about a band competition and the lead actor even plays the clarinet, the very instrument I played as a child. The film reminded me very much of the comedies of Michel Gondry or Wes Anderson. We have a cast of odd characters in this Kerala village. Pellissery seems to have a troupe of actors he likes to reuse — like Wes Anderson does in his films. The film has a magical realism element to it, like the film Amelie. There’s an inherent sweetness to the story, and a nostalgia for life in this little village with it’s troubled church.
The film opens with a story about a prank delivery of a packet of faeces causing a fued between two families in the village. This has nothing to do with the main story of the film, but sets the scene of a village where everyone gets in each other’s business.
The opening credit animated song was perhaps my favorite song sequence of the whole movie:
The cinematography of the film is stunning, set in the scenic Kuttanadan area of Kerala, where the most common mode of travel is by canoe or ferry boat. The ferry brings a new priest to this village, Vincent Vattoli (Indrajith) but at first he’s not recognized as a priest because he wears secular clothes and dances with a young French tourist on the ferry boat. He arrives at the church under the iron grip of the stern head priest Father Abraham (Joy Matthew) and the corrupt sacristan. Father Abraham is ready to tear down the church and abolish the church’s band.
Fahahd Faisal (Solomon) plays clarinet only in secret to his love Shoshanna (Swathi Reddy). He’s the son of the most famous clarinet master player of the area who died in a boat accident. Solomon can’t overcome his fears to play with the band, and in their yearly competition, until Vincent Vattoli comes to town.
There are some gorgeous set pieces when Solomon plays his clarinet in the dark to Shoshanna, and on a boat in the moonlight. But his character is such a nebbish that I had trouble sympathizing with his plight. Shoshanna’s family locks her away after she almost elopes with Solomon. Swathi Reddy does a decent job and has some spunk to her, but she doesn’t have a lot to do in the film.
There’s another one of Pellissery’s long tracking shots for a song set during a “toddy” shop fight between the two rival bands, with the cameramam ending the scene floating away in a boat.
This film should be my catnip, as I love Wes Anderson films, but this Amen film just did not resonate with me. The romance between Solomon and Shoshanna is sweet, but I really didn’t like Fahahd’s nebbishy wishy washy character. I did like Indrajith’s priest character, and he even gets his own song as the French tourist fantasizes about him!
The music was interesting because it’s entirely Western musical instruments. In fact, with songs like When The Saints Go Marching In, it had a sort of New Orleans Jazz sound to the band combos.
This is my third of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s films, and so far my least favorite. I love, love, love Angamaly Diaries, and I really enjoyed City of God. Evidently, before Angamaly Diaries, I think Amen is the director’s most crowd pleasing film. It must evoke strong emotions for the Kerala audience that just didn’t translate to me. I admire the technical brilliance of the film making, and Margaret of Don’t Call It Bollywood does a great job expanding on that aspect. But, Amen for me is a film I admire, but doesn’t make me love it.