A special screening of Asoka Handagama’s latest feature film titled Alborada (The Dawning of the Day) was held at the Liberty Scope Cinema on 17 February 2022.
The film chronicles a fictional depiction of Chilean activist and diplomat Pablo Neruda’s time as Ambassador to Sri Lanka in 1929.
Neruda was a Nobel laureate whose memoire makes a reference to his rape of a Sri Lankan woman – a low caste Tamil who cleaned his outhouse – which has led to the poet’s fall from grace in later years. Neruda has often been lauded “the greatest poet of the 20th Century” and this image has made him the subject of countless films, most notably 1994 Oscar contender Il Postino.
However, many of these films attempt to erase any rape from the poet’s legacy, and what’s most admirable about Handagama’s retelling of the poet’s life spent on the island is that despite Sri Lanka being known for its conservative culture, the filmmaker does not shy away from depicting the nature of the poet’s infatuation and the act of sexual assault.
The script for the film was inspired by Neruda’s Memoirs, and in this memoir, the poet alludes to the “untouchable woman” and describes her as the “most beautiful Ceylonese woman”. However, the filmmaker draws attention to this observation: while Neruda makes plenty of references to his Burmese lover Josie Bliss in his poetry, no poem of Neruda’s alludes to this woman with whom he was so smitten. This observation is what inspired the tagline of Handagama’s film –“The poem Neruda never wrote”.
The film stars Spanish actor Luis J. Romero as the protagonist of the film – the famed poet Neruda – and French actress Anne-Solene Hatte as his obsessive former lover Josie. The rest of the main cast comprises a number of Sri Lankan performers in their feature film debut: Rithika Kodithuwakku as the “Tamil woman” who was the object of the protagonist’s obsession; Malcolm Machado as Neruda’s man servant; Dominic Keller as Lionel Wendt – the only colonial officer who learnt the local language; Nimaya Harris as Patsy – Neruda’s new lover, and a host of local talent including Thusitha Laknath, Kaushalya Mendis, Samantha Balasuriya, Kasun Perera, and Kanchana Nandani rounding out the remainder of the main cast. The film is edited by Ravindra Guruge and produced by H.D. Premasiri.
Despite all this history and “behind-the-scenes” of it all, we decided to go into the film completely blind, so as not to colour our opinion of the actual final product of all the conversation surrounding the poet in his real life. I didn’t even know that the dialogues would entirely be in English with Sinhala and Tamil subtitles.
And to be perfectly honest (maybe it was because I didn’t have all this background research during that first viewing) the film has an incredibly slow start and continues at a snail’s pace that is quite exhausting. It does pick up slightly towards the latter part of the film when we get to see more of the actual focus of the film. However it is a little too late; the film has already lost its audience by that point.
Perhaps if you were a fan of Neruda’s work, then the constant reciting of his poetry by the characters may interest you. However, the clunky dialogue stuffed with long lines of poetry and awkward, rough performances really take away from an otherwise beautiful film. Thanks to Channa Deshapriya’s gorgeous cinematography, the film at least is stunning to look at, capturing Sri Lanka in a striking light. However, this isn’t enough to save it in the end. It is definitely not meant for a casual viewer.
The vision that Handagama had for the film is clear – it is bursting with passion – but it could have benefited from a more experienced cast and a more refined and accessible script.
“Alborada” is now screening in Scope Cinemas – at Colombo City Centre and Liberty Cinema.