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Film review: After Life; The Vigil; Yes, God, Yes

11 September 2020

Stephen Brown finds Buddhist, Jewish, and RC themes in films

A still from Hirokazu Koreeda’s classic 1998 film, After Life

A still from Hirokazu Koreeda’s classic 1998 film, After Life

WHEN my life is over, and the angels ask me to recall the thrill of it all, which memory shall I choose? Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 film After Life (Cert. PG), now on Blu-ray, poses this very question. As was said at the time, it is a masterpiece. The director (2018’s winner at Cannes for Shoplifters) denies that After Life is religious. The subject-matter certainly has universal relevance — Westminster Chimes on the soundtrack endorsing this — but Buddhism implicitly underpins the content.

Each week, several recently deceased pass through a way station between life and death. They have three days to select a memory to accompany them into eternity. Which experiences made life worth living? Everything else will be forgotten. Staff then construct a film based on what has been described. On Day Seven. the deceased will review that precious moment before attaining Nirvana.

Some have a treasury of experiences to draw on. A few will remain in limbo, deciding not to confine themselves to a sole memory. Counsellors encourage subjects to reflect more deeply on what created happiness. A young girl, previously opting for Disneyland, comes to cherish memories of her mother’s loving caresses. A libertine spends days revelling in sexual conquests and then plumps for his daughter’s wedding day.

Gradually, the film centres on a 71-year-old businessman, Mr Watanabe (a Kore-eda regular, Taketoshi Naitô). He asserts that there isn’t a worthwhile memory to keep. His assigned clerk awakens him to the joys that he has had. It is no accident that the title in Japanese is “Wonderful Life”: a nod to Frank Capra’s 1946 film. There, a guardian angel demonstrates how wonderful George’s supposedly ordinary existence has been.

Kore-eda’s characters often fail to see the significance of mundane moments. Only when viewed in the light of eternity are they able to give value to all the changing scenes of life. Realising that we were part of someone else’s happiness, enjoying a summertime bus ride, deriving comfort from being loved, or dancing cheek to cheek can be heaven.

The movie is also a meditation on cinema itself. Filmmaking’s efforts to replicate experience aspire after life itself, transcending dualistic distinctions between our (limited) sense of reality and what is offered on screen. It is a path of enlightenment as the deceased’s lives are thereby illuminated, assuming deeper meaning as they watch fictionalised accounts of each memory that they will carry into the next world.

In keeping with Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths this can occur only if they are prepared to let go of their hazy recollections of time past. As Eliot put it, if all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable. This may seem harsh, but entering eternity with a tabula rasa forestalls further anguish, or concern over those left behind.

Kore-eda’s style is often compared to that giant of cinema Yasujirô Ozu. As in the work of his mentor, the use of sustained shots of snowflakes gradually presenting the eye with patterns, apparently empty rooms becoming rich in visual detail, and a darkened screen giving time for reflection leave humdrum lives transfigured and thankful for their blessings.

Blu-ray available from the BFI Shop (phone 020 7815 1350). shop.bfi.org.uk

 Dave Davis as Yakov in The Vigil

THE VIGIL (Cert. 15), on current release, gains its title from the Jewish practice of detailing someone to watch over a recently deceased community member and ward off evil spirits. Often, it is a relation, but sometimes, as here, a shomer is paid.

Yakov (Dave Davis) is an impoverished young man formerly part of the congregation of Rabbi Shulem (Menashe Lustig). In the Hasidic Borough Park neighbourhood of Brooklyn, we first encounter Yakov at a counselling session for those who have broken away from the Orthodox faith. It is a significant transitional movement into secular society. The trouble is that we can change our sky but not our souls. We take our beliefs and demons with us.

The corpse in question is that of Mr Litvak, a reclusive Holocaust survivor. His widow (Lynn Cohen) supposedly suffers from dementia, although this is far from obvious. After she goes off to bed and the rabbi leaves, Yakov begins his watch. We already know that this is going to be eventful from the dimly lit blue-grey palette used by the director of photography, Zach Kuperstein, and a heavy-handed soundtrack that repeatedly undermines suspenseful moments by anticipating them. All too predictably, there are ghoulies and ghosties, and things that go bump in the night. What maintains our interest, however, is wondering whether the good Lord will deliver Yakov and us from evil.

We learn from Mrs Litvak that the place is haunted by a mazzik, a malevolent spirit that seeks a host to inhabit. Her husband’s ordeal in Buchenwald’s concentration camp left him prey to such an invasion. She also is tormented by the venomous presence of a dybbuk, stemming from memories of her grandfather’s anti-Semitic experiences in Kiev during 1919. Add to that Yakov’s devastating feelings of guilt in failing to defend his little brother, murdered during a racist attack, and we have a surfeit of nightly fears and fantasies.

The film is subtle enough for us to be left to decide how real the demonic actually is or whether all the horrors endured are just going on inside Yakov’s head. He is on medication (when able to afford it) from his psychiatrist and striving to take some tentative steps forward. For instance, he consults the internet on how to relate to women. Mrs Litvak warns him against being broken by memories. Such demons will bite and never stop unless . . . ?

That is where The Vigil is at its weakest; for it is unclear what would purge a frantic soul of its misery. The rabbi offers morning prayers, and perhaps the shomer idea was a pastoral device to assist returning to a comforting faith. Some reviews have described Yakov as enduring the dark night of the soul. I wonder. The film chiefly trades in unmitigated despair. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, but, as St John of the Cross understands it, only the light of God illuminating the soul on its way to mystical union. The director, Keith Thomas, pulls off a genuinely scary movie, but not one that delivers us from evil.

 Natalia Dyer as Alice in Yes, God, Yes

YES, GOD, YES (Cert. 15), available online on iTunes, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Sky Store, Virgin Media, and Rakuten, begins by quoting Revelation 21.8, which threatens fire and brimstone to the sexually immoral. This is followed with two very different definitions relating to salad. The latter, apparently, is slang for a certain kind of sex act. Well, you learn something new every day, as does Alice (Natalia Dyer) in the course of the film.

It is an adolescent’s nightmare to be ignorant of something about which “everyone else” seems to know. She is a Roman Catholic 16-year-old growing up in the American Midwest during the early part of this century. Fr Murphy (Timothy Simons) tells her class that all sex outside of marriage (including with oneself) will ensure damnation for all eternity.

This strikes me as odd. As David Lodge noted in his 1980 novel How Far Can You Go?, the traditional hell of Roman Catholics disappeared at some point in the 1960s. “Some realized that they had been living for years as though Hell did not exist, without having consciously registered its disappearance. Others realized that they had been behaving, out of habit, as though Hell were still there, though in fact they had ceased to believe in its existence long ago.”

Such an outlook may, perhaps, have been slow in reaching Iowa, where Karen Maine, the writer and director, was raised as RC. Even so, by the year 2000, wouldn’t the wind of change be blowing? In any event, the priest makes no reference to the sacrament of reconciliation and the opportunity to receive absolution. It makes one suspect the film.

We explore how Alice tries to square her sexual curiosity and rampaging hormones with the faith that she holds dear. Yes, God, Yes isn’t hostile to religion. It gently raises a fond smile when questioning why religious people need to be judgemental of one another. An innocent encounter with a boy leads to Alice’s being designated a slut by many of her contemporaries. Most of the plot occurs at a church retreat centre that Alice’s year group attends. Under Fr Murphy’s auspices, daily activities are supervised by older students who have already undergone the renewal process. It is all a bit cringe-making, with their cheesy grins and superfluity of bonhomie. This brand of Christianity appears to exclude both pain and contemplating anything below their navels.

Alice’s own experimentations include visiting online sex chatrooms, masturbation, and, despite trying to suppress her urges, flinging herself at Adam (John Henry Ward), a rather dishy upperclassman (senior student). He himself may be bathed in the blood of the Lamb, but has no resources other than flight for dealing with this. The retreat has four stages: question your present lives, weep for your sins, accept yourselves, and go forth and live what you’ve learned. Alice does all these things, but not in the prescribed manner. The frank examination of erotic feelings is commendable. It is disappointing, though, that there is no corresponding theological exploration. The film’s title is more an exclamation than an affirmation.

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