Mathew, according to Rutnam | Sunday Observer

Mathew, according to Rutnam

Alston Koch and  Jacqueline Fernandez  in a scene from the film
Alston Koch and Jacqueline Fernandez in a scene from the film

Chandran Rutnam’s much awaited, According to Matthew, a cinematic rendition of the true story of Fr. Matthew Peiris who was convicted for the double homicide of his wife Eunice and his mistress Dalrene’s husband –Russell Ingram, is ready to come alive in the cinema circuit. A remarkable aspect of this latest venture by Rutnam is that it will be released in English, Sinhala and Tamil. I do not know if a Sri Lankan film has previously been released in all three languages. There is a possibility that According to Matthew in that sense is breaking new ground in our film domain.

A press show was held on 3 April at the National Film Corporation with a press conference before the screening to apprise members of the ‘Fourth Estate’ about details of this venture by Rutnam which stirred much intrigue and enthusiasm when news of its production first emerged, a few years ago. Fr. Mathew Peiris was a friend of the Rutnam family and this story is one that surely connects with the filmmaker on a very personal level.

Yours truly did a two part feature in the Sunday Observer issues of 29 September 2013 and 6 October 2013 about how Rutnam initially drew up plans to make a film of this story with the consent of Fr. Mathew Peiris himself, and how later on, he began sketching his plans for the big screen, a cinematic narrative of the infamous ‘vicarage double murder’ which shocked Colombo society, given the high standing Fr. Mathew Peiris held in the community.

One of the significant aspects of this film is that it is based on an incident that belongs to the sphere of scandalous high profile infamies in Colombo’s narrative of people and events that were in the spotlight in the last century. Another, equally important fact about According to Matthew is that it is an English medium Sri Lankan film, which is indeed a rarity, to say the least. Roy de Silva’s It’s A Matter of Time in 1990 was a work that created a sensation as an English medium film, although the subject matter wasn’t anything to write home about. The need for more good quality English medium films from Sri Lanka is a need in my opinion to capture and project the lingual realities of Colombo centric, urban Sri Lanka, and also make a new kind of connection with overseas audiences.

From among the present filmmakers in the country, Rutnam is definitely one who can further this aspect of Sri Lankan cinema, although in my opinion he should not be a stickler to his self declared principle / policy of preferring to work with first timers as opposed to more seasoned actors. Colombo’s English theatre has a growing stream of very able actors who will surely be a pivotal source for developing English medium Sri Lankan films in the future. Shanuki de Alwis, Miranga Ariyaratne and Andre Perera who play cameo roles in According to Matthew, are examples.

Being able to act well for the screen is as important as being able to speak English that reflects a Sri Lankan tone and identity in terms of producing English medium local films. By that I do not mean, making substandard pronunciation and grammatically flawed dialogue should be the norm as Sri Lanka’s way of speaking English! Far from it. Urban bilingual Sri Lankans speak a calibre of English that makes even some British feel self conscious about how much mastery they can claim over their own mother tongue.

I do believe, in this regard, that characters need to ‘sound’ convincing as bilingual Sri Lankans. It is important that they fit the character descriptions with how they produce their English diction. Americanized, Australianized or patently British accents do not necessarily do a service in characterizing a Sri Lankan bilingual. This is an aspect I believe that Sri Lankan viewers would immediately note with regard to the spectrum of diction one encounters in Rutnam’s According to Matthew, a story set in the 1960s-1970s.

According to Matthew provides what is inarguably high quality cinematography. It is a work which can be applauded for this superiority in the folds of Sri Lankan cinema. Its visual impression captivates the eye immediately at the opening itself complemented by poignant music. Capturing the persona of Fr.Mathew Peiris as an enigmatic character comes through rather well by the visual craft in the film. Alston Koch who plays Mathew Peiris presents a formidable picture which speaks deeply through the medium of moving images. To her credit it must be said, Jacqueline Fernandez who plays Peiris’s mistress doesn’t present speech that sounds patently foreign. Fernandez adds much through her performance which laces wisps of seductiveness to the visual fabric of this cinematic creation.

Bimsara Premaratne, as Mathew’s wife Eunice, portrays a subdued and oppressed character left at the mercy of an unscrupulous man. Her visage and deportment come out rather convincingly as per her character, but at times, her delivery of dialogue was a bit theatrical. Kian O’Grady (a person of Irish origin by the sound of his name) who plays Mathew’s first victim showed veins of appreciable screen acting although his diction didn’t make him sound the typical urban bilingual Sri Lankan.

Something that caught my eye at the opening itself, was that my Alma Mater –Wesley College, had a significant role to play in According to Matthew. I identified all the spots immediately. The prisoner to whom Mathew reads the gospel one last time happens in a classroom in the Commerce and Arts A/L section in which I too have sat. He walked down the wooden stairs that leads to that section, the senior library and the East Tower which was legendary as the Prefects’ Guild Room. The prisoner is hanged in the vicinity where the senior canteen was located during my schooldays. Mathew himself is interrogated in a classroom located close to the College office, above which is the floor with the science labs and A/L Maths and Science classrooms. The Wesley College grounds, Campbell Park, the cricket pavilion, and the Old Wesleyites Sports Club (OWSC) all enter visibility in various scenes. And it caught my ‘ear’ how O’Grady who plays a character who claims to be past cricketer of this school interestingly enough mispronounces the name as “Wezley”. A ‘z’ surfaces when it should be an‘s’ sound.

Fr. Mathew Peiris was an exorcist whose power to cast out malevolent spirits was legendary. He was in that regard revered, celebrated and feared. Several times have I as a child heard from my grandmother Sita Boange of the frightening account of how he exorcised a male servant who worked at my maternal aunt’s house in Kirulapone, and freed him of a demonic possession. However, the exorcism shown in the film didn’t in my opinion bring out Mathew’s character as enigmatic and extraordinary in the craft of exorcism. That was a scene that could have been better developed to heighten the overall impression of Mathew’s persona in the film.

The schema of locations used in this film is captivating. The tranquil vicarage, the courts, the police establishments, the places of social gathering and the vintage motorcars all contribute to build a well devised visual schema. Given the limited financial resources a Sri Lankan film can muster, it is unfair to demand a perfect reproduction of the period.

However, I noticed the character Steven who plays a significant role in the story wearing an ‘Abercrombie and Kent’ cap in a scene where he converses with some friends sitting outdoors. That travel company did exist since 1962, but could clothing with that brand have been in Colombo at that time, is a point to ponder.

As the 21st century advances, and events that made an impact on Colombo’s socio-cultural life of the past century gradually enter the folds of history or the personally recalled past, creations as According to Matthew, will hold a special place in Sri Lanka’s cinema history for not only being a work that speaks to a broad audience, but also as an endeavour that presents a rendition of a true story that occupied a special place in the psyche of the community at that point in time. This is a film which surely, an entire generation of Sri Lankans waited for, eagerly. 

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