Pingyao 2021 review: Pedro (Natesh Hegde)

Pedro crackles with the increasingly unwilling vim of its constituents to shoulder the burdens of uncritical tradition.”

Originally slated to premiere at Cannes 2020 under the Directors’ Fortnight label before the pandemic pulled the plug, Natesh Hegde’s lush and confident first feature, Pedro, like many of its overdue counterparts gestated in uncertain limbo for the better part of lockdown before finally making its debut this fall. And while Hegde shot and edited his film prior to the virus and its ravages, it nonetheless bears the foreboding atmosphere — pent-up tension, unspoken rituals, unpredictable violence — symptomatic of ‘COVID cinema’, a term soon to be in vogue when delineating a nascent tradition of productions that either examine the forms and realities of isolation or, more superficially, coast the contours of our mask-wearing, vaccine-laden times.

Of course, Pedro isn’t about literal pandemics, and neither does it languish in a universe of biological confinement. Rather, isolation comes through tradition and belief, and the faithful if foolhardy adherence to tradition and belief is what imposes rifts within the boundaries of a sleepy mountain village in Karnataka, southwest India. The titular character of the film is a meek and taciturn middle-aged electrician who leads a routine and frequently invisible existence, maintaining the village’s power supply and undertaking odd jobs at the behest of his landlord. He comes home every night to a woman and child, but they are not his; the house is his brother’s, who has been kicked out due to aggression and rowdiness. In replacing him as the household’s breadwinner, Pedro assumes the appearance of domestic order but commands little genuine love and respect.

There is little to do each night after work but drink, and like the other labourers, Pedro sulks in a stultifying makeshift bar, slouched over cheap booze. Things come to a head one day when the landlord entrusts him with guarding his farm and Pedro’s dog gets mauled by a wild boar. The distraught and drunk electrician staggers into the surrounding forests in pursuit of the boar, only to accidentally and fatally shoot a cow instead. From this point the bucolic tranquility and rhythm of the village are subtly transfigured into tableaux of deafening stillness, each frame creepily saturated, composed with uneasy distance, and littered with the potential of rabid mob vengeance.

The merits of Pedro are substantial in this regard; Hegde’s direction is frequently unassuming, not condescending, in its tempered portrayal of an insular rural community steeped in superstition and custom. Casting his own father as Pedro, the director taps on the former’s lived experiences to document the disquieting outcome of disturbing a tenuous social equilibrium that binds its inhabitants in stifled, quotidian drudgery. The killing of a cow, India’s most sacred animal, forms the backdrop for many of the country’s sectarian conflicts, and the viewer, as a testament to Pedro’s stylistic maturity, isn’t privy to its unsightly details. Rather, its off-screen occurrence accords the act a symbolic weight which mirrors the invisible hierarchies underpinning the community. There are plenty: landowners whose words exert command and extract compliance from labourers; men whose brute force engenders muted obeisance from women; and the community at large which, by will of the majority, is compelled to condemn and ostracize those who break its unwritten rules.

Still, the film’s evocative images and immersive sound design aren’t quite sufficient to carve out distinct territory among its ilk of slow-burn social dramas. Vikas Urs’ cinematographic survey of Karnataka’s tropics complements the primal chirps and growls of the forest (in a deftly composed aural track courtesy of Shreyank Nanjappa) to distill the unrest bubbling beneath the deceptively rustic surface. Yet most of Pedro’s dramatic sequences work better individually, for the film does not quite observe a patient but calculated continuity between spaces and interactions, but instead contents itself with plodding along, with varying degrees of success, towards its inevitable denouement. One would no doubt recall the stunning restraint of Arun Karthick’s Nasir from last year, whose explosive climax arrived as moral affront to the preceding series of events charting its protagonist’s unassuming life. It may be said, of course, that with Pedro Hegde has already demarcated a concrete event over which he lays his thematic exploration; and being the first film in the Kannada language at Busan, where it eventually had its world premiere, Pedro crackles with the increasingly unwilling vim of its constituents to shoulder the burdens of uncritical tradition.