We heard there were rats in The Liberty. That it smelled like urine. That the sound was awful. But it’s the most famous cinema in Sri Lanka’s capital, a 1955 Art Moderne beauty, and how could we turn that down?
So we wore socks. Rats don’t like socks.
It’s been modified, updated, and expanded since it opened in 1955. New micro-theaters have been built on. Posters for Alvin and the Chipmunks and a Sri Lankan film called Hello Bertie–featuring a fat local Chaplin impersonator–covered the walls.
But what catches your eye walking in is the stairwell. It’s a 40′-tall mural showing the expulsion from Eden. It’s dark and dusty and faded, and positively incredible.
Eschewing any design consistency, the creepy toilets announce themselves with top-lit paper-mache faces, glaring out ominously.
But the theater itself was perfection. Aqua lights gleamed out from the ceiling, and brown waves lapped at the walls. The balcony was jam-packed. The new Tintin had opened.
But Tintin was a film of the city. It hadn’t reached Aluthgama Beach, several hours south of Colombo. It certainly hadn’t reached The New Liberty Cinema, a theater that’s anything but new.
Mold eats away at the lime green facade, which seems to have been ground away by the 2005 tsunami. Windows are smashed, and plaster is crumbling. It’s covered in scars of rotting old film posters.
I was thrilled. This was such a gorgeous run-down cinema. But-
“No Sri Lankan movie today,” said the man in the ticket booth. “English movie.”
He leaned in closer, and whispered with a wide grin, “Sex movie!”
He pointed to a yellowed lobby card taped on the wall. The movie wasn’t English, but it’s definitely sex. It was Antonio e Cleopatra, hardcore Italian porn from the producer of Troll 2. Joe D’Amato.
The lobby card photo was ripped, moldy and the tape was peeling off. It was immediately clear: this movie had been playing here for years.
“New movie tomorrow,” said the manager, eager for trade. But we were leaving before then. He paused, then changed his mind.
“New movie today! Come back two o’clock!”
He offered to show a Sri Lankan thriller called Gamini, directed by the improbably-named Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara.
I stepped aside for a pair of women in skirts, who sashayed in for the 10:30am screening.
“Prostitutes,” whispered Woo in my ear.
Thirty minutes down the road, in Kalutara, we happened on The Priska. A beat-down theater in an overgrown alleyway.
The car park was empty. Rusty, too.
We’d arrived after the morning screening had begun, so–as theaters in India do as well–they’d already padlocked the fire gates shut. The gatekeeper lazily opened the lock, and slid them partially open. I’d like to see this guy working in a blazing fire.
The Priska had seen better days. It was dark, dusty, and dirty. Our seats were broken. The film was inaudible.
Although with nookie seats like these, who cares?
They were showing Thank You, Bertie, (Stutie Berty Oyarte) the locally-produced “joke film” we’d been seeing posters for everywhere. With the fat Chaplin impersonator.
A pair of con artists in a series of slapstick situations. Ladies’ saris catching in bicycles and unwrapping. Women chasing men to high speed circus music. Cameos by Sri Lanka’s favorite 3-year-old opera-singer. Standard Benny Hill fare, with an unrequited love story squeezed in.
It was difficult to follow. There were no subtitles. And the film was out of focus.
But then again, their projectors were 60 years old.
Roy De Silva’s been a projectionist for 47 years, ever since he was 18 years old. He patted one of the Peerless Magnarc projectors proudly. (Compare them to these 1928 projector pictures.)
The projector lamps were made by a company in London on Wardour St, close to where I grew up. Spent carbon rods littered the floor. A younger projectionist who didn’t speak any English set up a second projector while we waited for the intermission to end.
Check out the fairly awesome Thank You, Berty trailer, below…