The Outcast (Padadaya, 1998) is a very good, uncluttered but poetic and engrossing drama from Sri Lanka that's substantially compromised by an inferior DVD presentation. In addition to its below-par transfer, the DVD offers frustratingly inadequate subtitles. Still, until a better edition comes along, this is better than nothing.
The lack of better, more complete subtitles makes the already straightforward, simple story rather vague: the name of the main character isn't even identified in the subtitles until the film is nearly over. Dharmadasa (played by the director, Linton Semage) is a widowed, water-gate keeper who lives with his prepubescent son in a small, apparently remote village. A basically decent but reticent man, he's lonely but chooses not to socialize much with his neighbors. He is quietly generous however, giving away his dead wife's clothes to a woman whose home has burned down, and he buys a pair of crutches for a landmine victim when no one in his community will contribute to a fund to buy them.
(Mild Spoilers) Dharmadasa becomes attracted to the wife of a soldier serving some distance away, and their eventual love affair causes a rift in the village resulting in Dharmadasa cutting off the sluice gates, denying his neighbors their water supply.
The Outcast recalls similar films by Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray and, more recently, Iran's Abbas Kiarostami. Like the work of those directors, Semage's film grapples with universal concepts of loneliness, jealously, poverty, and the destructive nature of gossip. Emotions run deep but are largely repressed and internalized. Semage's style is direct with a minimum of fat; he uses static medium shots (with camera movement used mainly for punctuation) and a methodical pace to good effect. Even as the main character Semage's physical movements are deliberate and almost like that of a dancer, lending the film a hypnotic air.
It's not clear if the film specifically addresses local cultural issues, or whether the village seen in the film is representative of typical Sri Lankan life, but for foreign audiences the picture has the added appeal of its glimpse into this distant culture.
In one especially interesting scene, a traveling showman (on a bicycle) charges villagers to gaze into his magic lantern-type device, something like a ViewMaster with images of everything from "Princess Diana, her wedding and her funeral" to naked women, all of which he narrates almost like a silent movie-era Japanese benshi.
Video & Audio
Pathfinder Home Entertainment's presentation of The Outcast appears complete, this in spite of the picture's short, 64-minute running time. (The DVD itself lists a running time of 94 minutes, while Pathfinder's website lists the film at 78 minutes. The 64-minute running time is correct.) The DVD is full-frame, but this also appears right; many Third World countries still shoot films for this theatrical aspect ratio. Unfortunately, the transfer seems derived from a PAL source and is notably soft.
A bigger issue is the non-removable English subtitles, or rather the frequent lack thereof. Close to 35% of the dialogue isn't translated at all so that (particularly during crowd scenes) foreign audiences are left wondering what's being said. Conversely, in one scene without dialogue a completely mismatched subtitle suddenly appears out of nowhere. What is translated lacks nuance and quite possibly is nothing more than a direct translation without regard for character, which tends to make everyone sound bluntly literal with no shading. None of the credits are subtitled either, hence the lack of most actors' names in this review. The audio is adequate.
Overall the presentation looks like a temporary screener the film's rights holder would pass around to potential distributors at MIP or the AFM.
Self-proclaimed "world famous film critic" Luke Y. Thompson is on hand for a Director Interview with Linton Semage, which runs 16 minutes. Semage has interesting things to say; for example he implies without directly saying so that Dharmadasa's cutting off his neighbor's water supply is a political allusion to foreign corporations privatizing the very water falling from the sky, a practice documented in The Corporation. Thompson's incongruously flip approach - he actually says "Whattsup everyone!" in his introduction - sharply contrasts the reserved and more modest Semage. The segment is letterboxed but not enhanced.
Also included is a still gallery, U.S. trailer, and a director biography.
Surprisingly, The Outcast was Semage's first film as a director, but based on his work here - both as a director and actor - he's well on his way to becoming one of Asia's more important filmmakers.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.