Birth (2004)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-2 ; L-3 ; S-4/N-2

Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
James 4:13-14

Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.
1 Tim. 3:16

Birth

Director Jonathan Glazer (remember his hard-edged Sexy Beast?) raises the question of reincarnation in his suspenseful film set amidst the posh apartments of sophisticated Manhattanites. The film begins on a cloudy day with a tracking shot of a hooded runner making his way along one of the paths that criss-cross through the woods of central Park. We have just heard his off-camera voice declare that he does not believe in anything supernatural. The music, a mixture of the upbeat and the eerily mysterious, contributes greatly to our expectation that something is about to happen to the runner. It does, but it is not any man-mad mayhem. Within the shadows of an overpass, the runner falls to the ground, and dies, presumably of heart failure. The next scene is that of an infant being born.

Jump ahead ten years, and a well-dressed couple are waiting for an elevator. In the lobby there is a brief shot of a young boy. The woman tells the man that she forgot the ribbon for the box she is carrying, but that he should go on up to the party. She leaves the building and crosses into Central Park. She gets off the path, entering the woods. Behind her the boy is following. She stoops down and with her bare hands, scoops out leaves and dirt, and buries the box. She then, cleaning her hands as she goes, returns to the party. For quite a while this scene puzzles us, as it is a long way into the film before this is referenced.

The party the woman, Clara (Anne Heche), joins late is hosted by Anna (Nicole Kidman) and Joseph (Danny Houston). Joseph, relating how for a long time he had been turned down by Anna—first for a dinner date, and then for marriage—announces that at last she has accepted and that they will be married later that spring. Thus we learn that Anna is the widow of the runner who had died ten years earlier. Soon there is another party, this time in honor of Anna and her sister’s mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall). Right after the birthday cake candles are blown out, the boy crashes the party. Declaring that he must speak alone with Anna, the two leave the party. He says his name is Sean (Cameron Bright). When Anna does not react much, he repeats it, “Sean,” the name of her husband. They do not just share the same name, he is her husband, the ten year-old boy insists!

Understandably, Anna does not believe him, nor do any of the other members of her family. She sends the boy away. But he persists in coming to her apartment and declaring that he is indeed her husband. He knows all sorts of details about the family and about their life together. The various members react as we would expect sophisticates to—it just is not possible. Joseph, the fiancé, takes the claims calmly at first, but finally erupts in a furiously dangerous rage. Anna slowly comes to accept the boy as her husband, despite the efforts of her sister, her mother, and others to dissuade her.

At first seeming to be a variation of Ghost Story, the film instead becomes more of a study in character and of how modern, sophisticated adults deal with the unexplainable, rationalism rejecting the possibility of mystery in the universe. There is an unusually long close up shot of Ms. Kidman’s face as she and sits with Joseph at a concert. The camera holds on her face for almost a full three minutes (which in a film seems so much longer!), and her thespian skill is such that we can tell from her expression when she has accepted Sean’s unusual claim.

Young Cameron Bright is perfect as the self-assured boy. He plays his role neither cute nor sweet. I do not recall him smiling, so obsessed is this serious boy with proving his claim to Anna—indeed, he seems oblivious to the other adults, save for the time when Joseph, unable to contain his rage over how the boy has upset his relationship with Anna, attacks him.

The film is so offbeat, especially for Nicole Kidman, that it opened in the Cincinnati area only at a cheap seat theater—and then left after running for just a week. Thus, if it comes to your area, don’t wait—although I suspect that it will appear on video soon. It is well worth your time, even if the general public could not accept it.

For reflection/discussion

1) The music and lighting (the latter often very dim)—how do they contribute to the mood of the film? What did you conclude from Sean’s death followed by a birth?

2) What religion is especially associated with the doctrine of reincarnation? Why is it a necessary part of that religion? Does it make much sense when brought into Christianity? How does the two conflict?

3) How are the characters, and their reaction to what might be the supernatural, similar to people whom you know? What elements of Christianity do such people have difficulty accepting?

4) How do some pastors deal with Christ’s miracles? Even the resurrection? What do you believe? Do you think rationalists are right in regarding the universe as a closed system subject to human understanding in all respects?

5) How does the passage from James express what many people believe today? But for James, what is the context of such a seemingly modern statement?

6) What does the author of 1 Timothy say is the mystery of life? How does this see religion as based on faith? What is rationalism based on? Are the two necessarily incompatible or opposing? What do you think the filmmakers believe? Or, at least, how does their film’s resolution deal with all of the above?