Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Talking about the hereafter

It is not often that society talks about what happens after death in any meaningful way. That topic is mostly left over to different religions to tackle, and is frowned upon in more pragmatic westernized cultures, like the one I live in at present. There is very little discussion at all concerning personal faith and beliefs about life or death. They are mostly ignored. Of course, the fascination with death as a process exists. There is no dearth of films or TV shows showing the deaths of one or many persons, the different modes of death, the fear of death and so on. Witness the popularity of TV series like CSI that dwell on the realistic aspects of deaths and autopsies and the science surrounding them. The goal of series like these is to get people to understand that science can help in crime-solving, and that is a good thing. But any real discussion (or attempt at one) of what happens to a person after death is almost taboo. So that the recent Hollywood film Hereafter is a welcome exception. It surprises me that it was made at all, and I’m guessing the only reason it was made was because Clint Eastwood directed it (he did not write it). I really enjoyed the film. It’s not a great film but it’s a very good film about very difficult subject matter. A few minutes into the movie, we are witness to a horrific tsunami that sweeps in over a vacation paradise, crushing much of what is in its path and taking many people with it. One of those people is a young French woman (Marie, beautifully played by Cecile de France) who apparently drowns and then is brought back to life by two men who rescue her. While she drowns she experiences visions of the hereafter, where she sees a world of shadow people (silhouettes) all walking toward her bathed in a kind of white light. She cannot let go of that vision and decides to find out more about it. Most of the people in her life—her boyfriend/boss, her colleagues—are cautiously supportive but ultimately move away from her, except for one man who puts her in touch with two potential publishers for the book she wants to write about after-death experiences. Her story is one of three in the film. The other one is about a real psychic (George, played by Matt Damon) who can contact the dead, who has retreated from that world in favor of a factory job that helps keep his mind off death. His story is poignant because you are witness to how his life can never be normal once people find out what he can do. They want to talk to their departed family members and friends, but when they find out what the dead are saying to them, they are disturbed enough by it so that it is not hard to understand why the psychic ends up mostly alone, with no friends and no girlfriend. The film does a good job of showing how many people view this kind of contact with the dead as a game. It is not hard to understand that either since most of what pass for psychics are probably fakers. The third story is about a young boy whose twin brother is killed by a car and how he wants to find a way to contact him. All three of these characters end up at a book fair in London—a kind of synchronicity of events that allows them to meet each other. The film is slow-moving, so that by the time you get to this point it is possible that some people have lost their attention span. But the film has to be slow-moving in order to build up credibility. We have to see that the psychic‘s gift is a real gift, that he suffers because he has that gift, that it results in his living a lonely life, and that his attempts to change his life are mostly half-hearted. He mostly always gives in to people who want him to help them, even though he has stopped contacting the dead as a job. I don’t know if I would call Hereafter a dark film as much as a searching one. All three characters are in search of clarity and hope. The psychic knows that the hereafter exists (he doesn’t question its existence) because he can talk for the dead, but he wants to live his life and not focus on death, the young woman is searching for answers to what happens after death because she had previously only focused on her successful earthly life and she has understood how fragile it is, and the little boy wants to talk to his brother who was his companion in life because his brother supported and protected him. The film doesn’t really provide any answers—how could it—since no one has come back from the hereafter to tell us what it is like. But it opens doors to thinking and talking about it and that is a good thing, even though there are no real answers. Perhaps there is some comfort in just talking about it at times. Talking about it doesn’t have to mean focusing on it obsessively. The message ultimately is that it is this life we are given and that we should live it and have hope, and that is what Marie and George find out at the end of the film. He changes his life by taking a definitive stance to not do any more readings, and he leaves California for a European vacation that starts in London. His path in London leads him to Marie, and by the end of the film you know that these two will somehow get together. Is it a Hollywood ending? Perhaps. In any case, it was an acceptable ending for this film (at least for me) because the characters had decided to focus on life and not on death. Perhaps because they no longer feared death, they could focus on life. But the film in no way diminishes their journeys, and that is one of the things I liked about it. It didn’t scoff or poke fun at their questionings and beliefs. I know that the film’s theme will either attract or push people away, and I’m guessing that is the reason that the reviewers are as divided as they are about the film. Nevertheless, I give Clint Eastwood credit for taking on the film, since the topic is not a simple one and opens the door to skepticism and rejection purely because of the theme alone.    

1 comment:

  1. http://insidemovies.ew.com/2011/03/16/hereafter-dvd-japan-disaster-relief/

    DVD sales of Hereafter will go to aid disaster relief in Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. Warner Brothers announced this today and Clint Eastwood agrees with the decision. Very good decision......