When a young woman walks into his home, opening the unlocked door, Father Benedict is not shocked. He calmly asks her who she is and after giving a name she immediately asks for his help in a case. There is no introduction, no formalities, not even curiosity and you wonder if it is going to be a long, disappointing film. For this is how The Priest introduces the character of Mammootty, soon after a disconnected hospital scene and a song. But it is not that the dialogue writers forgot to add those missing lines. If it has to make sense, the movie has to proceed towards the interval when Father Benedict, in his priest's robes and a dog following him, is more properly introduced.
A lot of The Priest is written in this manner. A smile, a couple of tears, changes in behaviour of characters that will later make sense. In that sense, it has neatly fitted in elements of a horror thriller, enough to keep you wondering about what's what and who's who. After a point, it is also going to make your hair stand on end, if you are the sensitive sort. But after the initial suspense is broken down, it follows almost all the rules of a typical thriller, and judging by the fading away of music and the camera moving into dark corners of empty houses, you can prepare yourself for the 'unexpected' shocks. Despite the underwhelming beginning, first-time director Jofin T Chacko, picks up the thread and weaves together a pretty sharp thriller.
The song the film begins with has that charm in that it can at once be a soothing piece of music or else, when broken down into syllables and sung to a different beat, turn eerie (Rahul Raj's music). It introduces a lonely little girl in an orphanage. Not in the cliched sort of way. There are other merrier children going about their lives. And there's Ameya Gabriel, silent, hostile, never smiling, always by herself, petted by the nun who took her in. She does not listen in class or seem interested in anything, except drawing pictures.
Watch: The Priest teaser
Parallely you watch Father Benedict take up an investigation, prompted by the young woman who walked into his home (Saniya Iyappan). Everyone in a rich influential family keeps dying by suicide, in the gap of a few years. It suggests foul play. Benedict, as appears to be his custom, opens a case book, writes the family name, calls his police contact and begins the investigation. It is there that he meets Ameya. When she answers the police's questions, it is not with the emotions of a child. She is hostile, angry and sounding a lot older than her age.
Baby Monica as Ameya is brilliant in switching her emotions and expressions between low-key and high-key, never letting it go overboard. She has a lot of performing to do and she does this incredibly well. Nikhila Vimal appears as a teacher in Ameya's school and gets pulled into the child's life. New characters keep dropping in and you wait for Manju Warrier to show up. She does eventually, in a powerful role, limited to a few scenes. Even though this is the first film in which they have acted together, Mammootty and Manju Warrier share screen space in very few scenes.
Mammootty plays his mysterious priest character to a T, walking by with his lengthy beard, a long cross chain, a hat and his dog. He does not dominate the screenplay, and quietly slips on and off the screen, suiting the character. He talks about science and the 'dark zones' beyond it. But he does not preach, try to impose his beliefs on another or even make long speeches. He only speaks what he has to. Nothing else about Father Benedict â€” his past or personal life â€” is brought to the script, thus avoiding needless distractions to the story.
Writers Shyam Menon and Deepu Pradeep stick to the necessities and do not wander off. Only, once they make the first revelations, and the thriller gives way to horror, the script falls back on done-before deals. The backstory falls short of a convincing end that would have justified the drama you had watched unravel. If the editing had been tighter â€” especially in some crucial scenes involving the child â€” and the back story given a slightly more interesting twist, The Priest would have turned into a better package.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.