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Film review: The Book of Vision

20 January 2023

Charles Dance in The Book of Vision

Charles Dance in The Book of Vision

IS IT possible, as the Bond movie song suggests, you only live twice: one life for yourself and one for your dreams? Carlo S. Hintermann’s The Book of Vision (Cert. 15) seems to think so, proclaiming a relentless life force bidding us to keep re-inventing ourselves. It begins by quoting Gesualdo Bufalino’s The Plague Sower: “To be again, that is the question”. The film is about how one answers it.

Eva (Lotte Verbeek), a rising Dutch surgeon, begins a new life. She abandons her work to research the manuscripts of Johan Anmuth, an 18th-century Prussian physician who majored on how imagination and fantasies form a vital part in what makes us whole. Attempting to bridge the gap between body and soul, he records not only patients’ complaints, but their reflections and desires, too.

A new generation of doctors favoured surgical experiment. The conflict that arises between these different outlooks mirrors the ascendency of rationalism over the belief that it is the energising soul or spirit that is in need of treatment. Why, asks Eva, did doctors stop listening to their patients, treating the human body in a similar way to having one’s car serviced? Furthermore, mortality is not the anathema that it has become in the modern era. No one ever truly dies, Anmuth says, but all of us are healed in a continuous flow of life and death.

Eva is a bundle of contradictory elements, complicated by the serious medical issues that she has. Her kindly consultant, Dr Morgan, is played by Charles Dance and, on entering the life of Anmuth we find him acting that part too. The same goes for Verbeek. She is also Elizabeth, a noblewoman who is one of Johan’s cherished patients. It is a reminder that in the past healing emphasised that creating a relationship between practitioner and sufferer was crucial to the restorative process. The film seems to imply, without offering any evidence, that contemporary medicine ignores this aspect.

The movie cuts between the two women’s experiences at the hands of men. It is only when Eva behaves as if she were an Eve ridding herself of an Adam-like domination that she can heal. Elizabeth’s well-being will, likewise, only flourish when enabled to throw off the shackles of a male-defined universe.

It is significant that the film’s executive producer is Terrence Malick, whose own work, notably The Tree of Life (Arts, 22 July 2011), on which Hintermann was second-unit director, repeatedly explores themes of love, mercy, and beauty overcoming illness, suffering, and death. The new film plays due respect to this vision, even using Jörg Widmer, a favourite cinematographer of Malick, to paint its gloriously transcendent picture.

Some, however, will find the film’s philosophical meanderings rather ham-fisted, simplistic even. Is Eva’s “liberation” anything more than asserting a woman’s right to choose her own destiny? Nor will the re-establishment of earlier practices of holistic medicine strike all viewers as startling revelation. The strength of the piece lies in entering the world of our dreams and the making of various constituent parts of us whole when we know ourselves as we are known.

Released in cinemas on 20 January

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