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The Priest Review: Mammootty’s Thriller is Partly Effective Despite the Clichés

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Director: Jofin T Chacko

Cast:Mammootty, Manju Warrier, Baby Monica, Nikhila Vimal, Saniya Iyappan

Warning: There are spoilers

The protagonist of debut director Jofin T Chacko’s The Priest is a psychic, Carmen Benedict (Mammootty), who solves crimes as a pastime. Dressed in black robes and a chic hat, the man, along with his canine companion, visits crime scenes with a friend, a top police official. It must be an unusual sight, but in the film’s universe, nobody bats an eyelid. He speaks to prime witnesses and kin of the dead. He combs through the murdered person’s house and the compound for clues. Nobody questions his credentials.

Inserting the psychic who’s a Christian priest by profession liberally into the legal fold is the film’s way of validating him. The guy isn’t a looney who claims to speak to spirits but a learned individual who can be relied on. The first case that comes to the priest, a series of mysterious suicides in a wealthy family, acts as a frame to hold the next, a bigger and more challenging one that involves an angry spirit and exorcism.

Although The Priest isn’t a genre-bending work like Hereditary or Get Out, Jofin deserves a pat on the back for doing an impressive job of blending the elements of a conventional crime drama and a supernatural thriller. He creates a texture of brooding quite early on, through which the narrative slides from one genre to another.

There are cinematic cliches, the usual horror gimmicks aplenty. When the camera starts to track a character, you know the shot will end in a jump scare. In the latter half,  the characters move into a sprawling colonial mansion in a hill station reminiscent of the Western horror thrillers from where the film draws inspiration. Interiors are always dimly lit, often unreasonably so, to evoke a sense of distress. At critical moments, a vulnerable character is left alone in the house to be spooked out by the supernatural presence. One might wonder why, despite the long history of horror literature and cinema, people continue to make that mistake. There is no sign of human settlement anywhere around the house. So, the SOS calls are always made to the priest and not to the police.

Jofin, nevertheless, applies the cliches with a firm hand, never going over the top with them. Despite the scene of exorcism, religion isn’t a prominent element in the film. It isn’t about God and the devil, but human beings and the dead who aren’t ready to abandon their human self.

The film’s central conflict arises from Ameya (Baby Monica), a little girl who lives in an orphanage run by a Christian nunnery. A lot of the film’s suspense elements is attached to the child’s ambiguous parentage. Posing an abandoned child as an instrument of horror is another cinematic cliche, a critically problematic one. Ameya is strange-mannered and anti-social that has earned her a bad reputation among her school teachers. When she accidentally becomes the prime witness in a high-profile murder case, Benedict’s eyes fall on her, and he spots what no one else could ﹣an evil shadow lurking beneath her exterior.

The tale of two sisters narrated in the film’s most pivotal flashback is a pile of familiar elements, devoid of depth or novelty. Although it is hinted in the final scene that it was the elder sister’s compulsive urge to act as a guardian to the little one that caused the havoc, the film fails to delve deeper into her inner conflicts. The movie’s finale is a slew of twists set up to grab eyeballs, none of them powerful enough to shake up the viewer.

Monica is a fine actor who switches from controlled acting to being over-the-top (as required) seamlessly. Nikhila Vimal delivers a strong performance as Jessie, a kind young woman who takes Ameya under her wings.

In his last theatrical release Shylock (2020), Mammootty delivered a grotesquely theatrical performance as a loan shark. In The Priest, his second film in the horror genre, the actor keeps everything toned down. In crucial scenes, he lets his co-stars take over and resigns to the role of a spectator. This artistic choice or the result of the actor’s passive approach to the film produces mixed results. On the one hand, his performance helps bring the spooks close to the real world. And the megastar gets no self-referential lines or an action scene forced into the narrative.

One the other hand, thanks to the screenplay that gives him no persuasive moment or a behavioural feature, Mammootty’s Benedict is prone to be forgotten. One could say the same about the film too. The chills are short-lived. The subtext too bland. What is a horror drama worth if it offers the viewers nothing to take home?

****

The Priest review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreenindia.com and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.

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