“Soul”—The Spirit of Rebirth

Guest Blogger:  Mahshid Zamani Bozorgnia,   film critic

[Edited by Diana Y. Paul]

Soul,  an animated and  complex film from Pixar directed and created by Pete Dokter (who also created “Toy Story”, “Inside Out” and “Monsters Inc”), refers to the jazz music genre and tackles the theme of what is the spirit or soul, the distinction between passion and obsession, and what constitutes the “spark” of happiness.

There is something compulsively watchable and comforting about Pixar movies with their photo-realistic imaginary worlds. But there is much more.  There are built-in  philosophical questions of life and death and self-identity embedded in the story, which appeal to adults with the openness of a child.

The main character, Joe Gardner–an African American middle school music teacher (who, like his father, is passionate about jazz music)–deals with the choice of wanting to make a living or following his passion.  But this decision-making entails an existential life crisis.

(One finds traces of the transcendental philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, with  some of his actual words adopted into the film’s dialogue.)

Joe, an ambitious pianist aspiring to accompany one of the great saxophonists, Dorothea Williams, feels that his life has been, at best,  ordinary, and more likely an epic failure.  In order to understand Emerson’s view  that “there is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful,” Joe has to rebuild himself. And what can be a better metaphor for being reborn than actually dying and coming back?

In Soul, the Great Beyond and the Great Before, –the interstitial space between life and death– are the universe’s recycling of nature and soul. Joe is not ready for the rare moment of “transcendence,” or “Great Before,” Yet, when he realizes that he either has to mentor a baby soul (called “22”) to be given “a new and unique personality” or go to the Great Beyond, he decides to stay and take the training in the “You Seminar”. During the presentation, the seminar instructor, Jerry, explains that souls are missing “the spark” and that they can only enter a body if they find that spark. Joe believes his spark is jazz and that his life can inspire other souls.  Matched with recalcitrant soul number 22, who has never found her spark and has no desire to go to earth, Joe is determined that she is his ticket to rebirth.

Together, they enter the “the zone” that 22 defines as “the place between space and physical.”  Baby soul 22 takes Joe to Moonwind, who tells them that he himself was once a lost soul: “There is not much difference between souls in the zone and  lost souls:  joy can turn into obsessions and some people cannot let go of their anxiety and obsessions, leaving them lost and disconnected from life.” However, Joe does not yet understand what Moonwind is saying.  

Soon 22 sees the spark in every element in New York City, where they both temporarily land.  From the smell of pizza to small seed pods, 22 is ready to get life on Earth, believing that she has found her spark, but Joe remains unconvinced.  After a sensational performance with Dorothea Williams, she recalls a story of a fish who was in the ocean and yet dreamed of getting to the ocean. This wonderful analogy is a turning point for Joe.

And if we believe that Emerson’s theories were mostly about the idea of America–“that its existence matters, not its past nor its future”–what better place for Joe to become a transparent eyeball and define for himself what success is than on the streets of New York City?

Availability: Disney+

Note: Certainly an important curriculum topic for college freshman.  A very mature theme about what makes life worth living—may need to proceed with caution for some youth.  Young children may not be that interested, especially in the beginning of Soul.

“Your Honor”–Judge Me Not

Unconditional love–are there limits?  In Your Honor, a ShowTime mini-series,  a highly respected recently widowed New Orleans judge, Michael Desiato (Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad”) is known for his fair and impartial sentencing of young criminals. But the judge  gets personal   to protect his teenage son, Adam (newcomer Hunter Doohan)   from the consequences of his reckless actions. At first, the  judge advises his son to turn himself in to the police, and explain how he panicked after hitting another teen. But then he discovers that the boy his son ran over was the son of a notorious mafia don, Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me By My Name” and “The Shape of Water”). The judge knows that the mafia will wreak vengeance. Time after time the judge tries to use some moral principle to justify bad acts, and it all goes horribly wrong.

Adam is a total screw up, a clueless teenager who can’t think straight and is painfully annoying, causing the viewer to lose patience. Who doesn’t know a teenager who acts that way–reckless driving, too much alcohol or drugs, and unintended consequences for bad judgment?

There’s a certain tone reminiscent of “Breaking Bad” because the viewer is  put in the position of sympathizing with a scofflaw, albeit with a higher motive to protect as only a parent can. When it comes to your family, what would you do to save them? Where would you draw the line? And what effect would that have upon your moral code, your relationships with others and your honor?

Kudos to the director for crafting an ending that was totally unexpected. What would I do in similar circumstances?    Judge me not until you’re there.

Availability:  ShowTime streaming.

“Promising Young Woman” –Breaking Over and Over Again

Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell,  is a revenge thriller on a brutal topic–Don’t let the title mislead you.  Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year old former medical student, is now a barista living with her parents  In the opening scene we see a very inebriated Cassie barhopping and wandering the city streets at night.

The viewer doesn’t know why this bright and attractive woman is engaged in such risky, dangerous behavior.  To say much more about the film’s artistic and courageous story would ruin it.  But this is an extraordinary directorial debut that explores sexual aggression, objectification of women, and the denial of women’s voices.

Promising Young Woman not only portrays male antagonists, but also  “non-believers” who are women and enablers to the trauma.   This will inevitably be a controversial film because it depicts people hiding behind their smiles, popularity, and success without the underbelly of their criminal behavior being exposed or punished. 

There is no redemption in Promising Young Woman and none can be expected.  The bold ending was a surprise but satisfying in a way, and changes the entire tenor of the film and the perception of Cassie.

Carey Mulligan gives an Academy Award-worthy performance unlike any in her previous (mostly historical) films. She has to pivot from a fiery vessel of rage to a vulnerable young person hoping for change.   Caught in a web of pain, rage, and broken dreams,  Carey Mulligan’s character cannot imagine an alternative web of healing and mercy.

The supporting cast also is very strong:  Bo Burnham as Ryan Cooper, a pediatric surgeon and love interest for Cassie, Alfred Molina as a conscience-struck lawyer filled with regrets, and Allison Brie as a medical school classmate. 

Promising Young Woman is one of the darkest, most painful films I have seen in a very long time.  It may stay with you for days after viewing, clotting your thoughts and feelings on this brutal subject.

The movie delivers its sucker punch when you least expect it.  Not for everyone but for those who are intrigued by the relentless depth into human crimes and misdemeanors, don’t miss it!

Note:  This film has echoes of “13 Reasons Why”, “Lila and Eve”,  the classic “Goodbye Mr. Goodbar”, and “Killing Eve”.

Availability:  Amazon Prime Video

“The Life Ahead” –And Then the End

This 2020 Italian drama stars Sophia Loren in an adaptation of the Romain Gary novel, The Life Before Us.   Directed by Sophia Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti, The Life Ahead is the third film based on Gary’s novel.

The Life Ahead  has two main characters:  Madame Rosa, an octogenarian ex-prostitute and former  Holocaust survivor, and a 12-year old Somalian child.  To support herself Madame Rosa  cares for the children of local sex workers in her apartment. Consequently, Rosa is the glue in her neighborhood and the lifeline for women desperate to maintain a sense of motherhood as they prostitute themselves.

Near the end of Madame Rosa’s  life, 12-year old Momo (a vivid performance by Ibrahima Gueye), abruptly is thrust upon her. A local doctor who has been trying to find a foster home for Momo pleads with Rosa to accept the Somalian child into her informal daycare center. 

A Muslim boy from Senegal, Momo has no memory of Senegal, except for the trauma of watching his father kill his mother when she refused to prostitute herself. Abandoned by the father, now Momo is  a  tough, angry, and lonely street kid  who makes money selling drugs.   Madame Rosa suspects  the boy is engaging in criminal acts and endangering his future. She wheedles a local store-owner (Babak Karimi, from “The Salesman” and  “A Separation”) into giving Momo a job a couple days a week in his carpet  store.

The Life Ahead

Very slowly Momo starts to open his heart, first towards another little boy  he shares a room with at Madame Rosa’s.  Then with the  carpet store owner who shows him how to repair valuable rugs, and finally with the small community of women who wish to protect Madame Rosa as she starts to decline. Most of all, however, it is the Momo-Madame Rosa friendship which becomes fierce and protective.  When Rosa most needs support to fulfill her dream, she tells Momo:  “You’re a little shit but I know you keep your word.”

Momo very gradually learns to understand and appreciate  Madame Rosa, taking in all she gives him .  Through their pain and fear and need, they still see beauty:  in the boy’s drawings and in the old woman’s memories of her childhood.  Momo draws lions when his memories become unbearable.  When Madame Rosa’s trauma is  too much, she retreats into the building’s basement to listen to her music.  Almost  incredibly, both characters are  still capable of acts of great generosity. Both the very young  and the very old are exceptional  as they forge their friendship, despite their scars and unhealed wounds.

Sophia Loren’s Madame Rosa is alternately imperious and vulnerable, warm and cranky, strong and fragile.  It is  a heroic role for her.  She foregoes cosmetically softening that once glamorous and beautiful face for one that is almost unrecognizable. But it is a masterful decision for her to make. Loren’s exterior has been toughened for this role.     In those moments when she is trying to protect her traumatized soul, Loren seems truly broken and unreachable. Except for the boy.  Theirs is an unlikely friendship, to say the least.  Momo has never heard of Auschwitz—he thinks she is saying “house witch”.

A small but surprising film, quirky with only a bit of a saggy middle and an unnecessarily weak ending. Charming and endearing performances make a sometimes ordinary story quite masterful.  Highly recommend.

Availability:  Netflix streaming; released on November 6, 2020.