Mar 14, 2011

Notes on Hereafter

There are moments in life when you come across a book or a film and read it through the prism of  recent experience/s and thus form opinions that may be markedly different from those around you. For me, ‘Hereafter’ is that film.

Almost everybody has commented that this seems to be the octegenarian Eastwood’s meditation on mortality, life after death and whether there is anything of value thereafter.  If you interpret this splendid film in such terms, you will miss out on the empathy that you feel as you watch it. I am really not concerned about what comes after death. Life on earth is tough as it is and quite interminable. Who cares about the second innings?

So, what is ‘Hereafter’ really about? I think it is about loss and the craving to establish some modicum of connection with the source of that loss in its aftermath. This is overwhelming loss we are talking about: a loss so profound, so total, that it grips you like a death-vice around your throat and chokes the living breath out of you. Which is why I say, you can’t appreciate a film like ‘Hereafter’ if you have no sense of such loss.

As i was watching Hereafter, i was reminded of something that happens quite frequently whenever L and me fight. We decide never to speak again and then i ask hesitantly, "Is it ok to write to you sometimes?" It's a script with lil variation and i doubt she understands where the query springs from. But Eastwood understands it.

The 3 protagonists of the film, spread across London, Paris and SFO, are battling different degrees of loss. While one loss may seem more compelling and shattering than the other, the fact remains that the lives of all 3 have been altered irrevocably. The near-death experience that celebrity french journalist Marie Lelay (a breathtaking Cecile de France) endures in Tsunami-hit Hawaii, changes her life forever. She is distracted, unable to concentrate on the simple stuff that has constituted her life so far, and loses her job and boyfriend. Her loss may not be as obvious or moving as that of little Marcus in London who loses his twin brother Jason (his greatest support in a household where the only adult member is their alcoholic, crack-addict mother who keeps avoiding officers from the Child Services), but that does not render her loss any less poignant.

The story unfolding in SFO centres around George Lonegan (a subtle, dependable Matt Damon), a psychic who has the unique gift of being able to communicate with the dead and who considers this a curse more than a gift. We are told that he was quite a celebrity at one time, has even authored a book, but has now stopped doing ‘readings’ for people for he believes, “A life spent dealing with the dead is no life at all.” As the film progresses, we see how this curse indeed limits his chances of ever leading a normal life and we sense his feeling of deep disconnect and loss from the world of normal happy healthy people. The fact that these 3 souls cross paths and find some degree of redemption and relief is no surprise. It is as improbable and wacky as any multiple thread narrative film is.

‘Hereafter’ is not a film for those looking for a fast paced, talky script that delivers sudden punches and easy resolutions and wraps up everything neatly at the end. In tone and cinematographic treatment, the film reminded me of Shyamalan’s ‘Sixth Sense’. Almost everything in Eastwood’s film has a deep melancholy, from the superb background score to the acting of all the characters - from Marcus’ mother to Candice the black woman who has lost her child and begs George for a reading.

The more one watches quiet Hollywood films like this or Rabbit Hole or Out of Africa, one realises that deep grief is a black hole that cannot be conveyed through loud chest-thumping or sobbing. It is the knowledge that you have endured a loss so great that no matter what happens later, your capacity for happiness has been tarnished forever. That is perhaps the simplest definition of loss too.

There are scenes of quiet beauty in this film and one wonders how Eastwood, that stock veteran of Westerns and the Dirty Harry series, could have hidden a soul capable of such poetry, such lyricism and such sensitivity in those roles. George who has no friends, no social life to speak of, unwinds while listening to audio recordings of Dickens’ novels. It takes a filmmaker like Eastwood to pick sections of deep haunting beauty from the Victorian novelist’s works.

Then there is that early scene introducing us to the 2 twins in London. As their inebriated mother totters in, Jason the older twin remarks to Marcus, “She’ll see it tomorrow.” I don’t want to divulge what he is talking about but it takes a minute to sink in and when it does, you marvel at the terrific intuition this 80-yr old director possesses that enables him to penetrate the psyche of an adolescent boy who is trying to ease his younger twin’s sadness.

Watch ‘Hereafter’ once; it is a labour of love and not all films are. Pay it this tribute for it comes from a man whose heart has nothing but an all-encompassing love for humanity, of that I’m sure.

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