Christopher Machell Toronto

Toronto 2019: Jallikattu review

★★★★★

Can violence be contained through ritual? Does sanctioning violence in specific contexts purge the need for its spontaneous outburst? In his seventh feature, Indian director Lijo Jose Pellissery explores the nature of savagery in this singular, heaving howl of a film.

Not dissimilar from the Spanish running of the bulls, Jallikattu is the Indian practice of releasing a bull into a crowd of people, whereby individuals jump on the bull and ride it for as long as possible. In Jallikattu, the animal – a semi-wild buffalo in this case – is not released into a crowd of willing participants, but instead escapes from a bumbling butcher. Nevertheless, over the course of Jallikattu, the spectacle becomes no less ritualised than if it were.

From its opening moments, rhythm is an essential component of Jallikattu: aesthetically, as a device to build tension, and as a force driving the narrative relentlessly forward. In the film’s small rural village, butchers knives chop, ropes pull and tighten, mud slips underfoot, hands slap, abusive husbands hit their wives. Violence propels the quotidian rhythms of this Malayali village with an unceasing forward momentum. Caught up in tidal motion, individuals are hard to pick out, rising to the surface before sinking below the tides to make way for others, subsumed by the combined forces of the mass. Such is the atmosphere into which a single buffalo is released, escaping its slaughter to bolt into the forest. Its escape unleashes a seam of potential violence with no end.

Exhilarating does not begin to describe the feeling of watching the chase. Comprising almost the entirety of the film, the villagers run, scream, and fight their way to the buffalo, rendered both as a chaotic, frenzied monster and a terrified beast running for its life. Gireesh Gangahadran’s heady cinematography gets up close with its subjects, underscoring the disorientation with a visceral cacophony of sensation. The chaos of the daylit chases gives way to a night that illuminated by raging flames and howling voices, both animal and human. Renganaath Ravee’s sound design is defined by deep breaths, growls, and yawps. It is vital and it is terrifying.

No one is exempt from the orgiastic madness. From the father frantically planning his daughter’s wedding to the herbal farmer who initially pleads with the mob to let the beast roam free in peace, each in their turn is caught up and subsumed into the collective wave. A subplot between the bull-catcher and his nemesis gets lost among the hysteria, and an epilogue suggesting the essential nature of violence in humanity is unnecessarily direct. Moreover, Jallikattu seems to have little else to say than that people are brutal and essentially savage. Nevertheless, this is filmmaking at its most visceral and primal; beneath the barbarism we are forced to examine the ritualistic nature of violence, both sanctioned and taboo.

The 44th Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 5-15 September.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell