Seeing the praiseworthy film produced and directed by Chandran Rutnam on Fr Matthew Peiris convicted of two homicides, I wondered how on earth the man sailed through two murders in the vicarage of St Paul’s Church on Kynsey Road, Colombo 8, by using the same method of causing hypoglycemia in the husband of his lover and his wife. Surely the murders and Matthew Peiris were to be suspected by those who were associates. They did suspect him but most unfortunately after his poor wife was ill for several weeks and finally died. I then came up short. That could be expected three decades ago when technology and detection of crimes were still not as sophisticated as in this day and age when powerful persons are suspected of having committed murders most foul, even fouler than Peiris’, and so far have got away with them. Peiris claimed to have influence and others admitted he was powerful. Thus he would have thought he could get away with not one murder but two. Similar belief exists now.
Background to the film
Before the screening of According to Matthew at the Film Corporation Cinema on April 3, the invited audience was addressed by Chandran Rutnam. "Father Matthew Peiris was our family pastor and I was very fond of him as a friend. He was quite a gentleman – commandeering, domineering, dynamic and loved by the community. Even in prison he seemed to be a leader. He was an exorcist. He visited me when I was living in Los Angeles and stayed over. The next time I met him was in Sri Lanka in prison. I was filming a scene in the film I was directing at the time when someone tapped me on my shoulder. There stood Father Peiris with a Bible in hand. He said "This story you are filming is nothing. Why don’t you do my story?"
He revealed he was a prisoner and asked Rutnam to write a script and see him in prison the following week; both of which Rutnam did. Fr Peiris did not approve the script. Asked who would portray him, Rutnam mentioned Gamini Fonseka, the top local star of the day. Fr Matthew pooh poohed the choice. He laid down two conditions: the film was to portray him innocent, and he would act himself. "How could you when you are in prison for life?" That was the question asked. The priest/prisoner protested his innocence and said he was appealing the judgment passed and would soon be free. "I am like a scorpion. Anyone who crosses me, I will sting with my deadly tail." This was 25 years ago and Mr Rutnam avoided the priest. But the idea of the film germinated in his mind. He contacted Alston Koch in Australia and decided the rising Bollywood star, Sri Lankan beauty queen Jacqueline Fernandez would portray the seductress cum murder accomplice Daphne in the film.
On stage was Chandran Rutnam, Alston Koch, camera director Thusitha de Alwis, production designer Sunil Wijeratne and one other. Jacqueline Fernandez had wanted to be present but could not get away from her film schedule of the most expensive Bollywood blockbuster, Drive. Mr Rutnam admitted his film had taken long to complete due to various reasons. The delay in public screening was because he was keen to release the English version (which we viewed) and the Sinhala dubbed film simultaneously, a first in Sri Lanka. The film was also being dubbed in Tamil, Telagu and Hindi, the last two in recognition of Jacqueline Fernandez’s popularity in India. The Sinhala film is titled Anuragani. A question was raised on why this name and its meaning. Rutnam hemmed and hawed until a member of the audience supplied an answer ‘Lustful temptress!’
Q & A
Time was granted for questions. One was on how true the film story was to actual fact. Rutnam assured the audience he kept very close to facts as his script was written scrutinizing court records of the case. Attitude of the Christian church was queried. The Catholic Church had disowned Fr Peiris as no Catholic priest could get married. The film crew were not allowed in the Church in Borella so the producer had to build a replica.
Alston Koch spoke next and said this was his first major screen portrayal. He had enjoyed it all immensely, working with Chandran Rutnam and a star cast of mostly amateurs. He spoke about spooking during filming when Jacqueline had rushed to his caravan one night while on location to say hers was being violently shaken.
This was repeated in the caravan housing her make-up person and dresser. The late exorcist seemed to have been supervising production supernaturally!!
I said it was a praiseworthy film. I would go to the extent of saying it is excellent. Director/ Producer Chandran Rutnam is aiming to exhibit the film globally as it carries an international message. The theme is universal. Much is committed in the name of God as Fr Peiris did, and even in other religions there exist bigotry, over-zealousness, twisting and turning texts as one wants to and yes, blasphemy, even murder. It was striking, bordering on the fearful, to hear Fr Peiris pray to God to save the ill man as he injected insulin into the saline that dripped into the veins of young Randy, husband of Daphne (names were changed) lying seriously ill in hospital.
The techniques of film production are remarkable. Editing was sharp so that one’s interest is gripped and held and much was packed into two hours of film. Many scenes were in stark light and dark shadow, black and white in the technicolour film. The garden of the vicarage was bathed in sunlight while rooms inside were dark, later sinister with a very ill Mrs Peiris in bed. This juxtaposition of dark against light was symbolic of good and bad as epitomized in the padre – saying prayers sincerely, while giving deadly medicine to Randy and his wife assuring relatives he was looking after them. It was scary and so possible.
The figure of the priest dominated many scenes, seeming larger than life as the camera tilted at Alston Koch either in white cassock or full black, with a prominent cross resting on his ample middle. The film starts with the Lord’s Prayer being recited by Fr Peiris while he walks with a prisoner who is to be hanged. Ironic too since at the end of the film, the priest is prisoner.
Daphne (Jacqueline) projected so subtly yet so vibrantly her sensuality and the manner in which the priest held her in thrall. A half nude scene of her taking a shower was beautifully done. It was difficult to define whether she was temptress or charmed to prefer the aging, rotund priest to her young, athletic husband. It was obvious the priest was a womanizer and had superhuman powers, not of persuasion but of hypnotism or any other esoteric power over women.
Alston Koch too was very well cast; his sonorous voice adding much to the film as Christian preaching was included. I will not name the small part actors, almost all non-Thespians, who competently depicted parents of Randy, brother of Mrs Peiris, the young cricketer, doctors and nurses. It was interesting to recognize persons one knew like Dr Lakshman Weerasena acting himself.
The fact that Fr Peiris conducted midnight Masses and had young girls disrobing and even being raped but not protesting was presented cleverly. A young girl in a group discussion avers to the fact and quick scenes are shown to prove what she says is true.
Chandran Rutnam should be specially commended for his title of the film According to Matthew with its connotation of the Books in the New Testament and its literal meaning of ‘the story according to the priest’.
So its laurels and kudos to Chandran Rutnam and all others who brought the story of Father Matthew Peiris to the screen, murders and a court case that riveted us newspaper readers between 1962 and 1972.