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Review: All things start with a screen test in the affirming metaphysical drama ‘Nine Days’

Winston Duke in the 2021 fantasy drama “Nine Days”
Winston Duke in the movie “Nine Days.”
(Michael Coles / Sony Pictures Classics)

In the rousing metaphysical drama “Nine Days,” applying for the chance to be alive requires a grueling interview process where unborn candidates are asked to analyze scenes of human jubilation and misfortune. The remarkably imagined and deftly implemented concept makes it difficult to compute this is Brazilian writer-director Edson Oda’s debut feature.

The tapestry of existence appears inside a lived-in home on a wall of archaic television sets, upon which we see the lives of others. Recognizably homey, the nostalgic aesthetic of this interstitial space preceding our mortal days adds grounded tactility to the perceptive, nearly airtight world-building. Stirring sequences when those disqualified receive a makeshift taste of the human experience exhibit similar handcrafted magic. Oda’s rendition of this limbo is a closer relative of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life” than the ethereal neon take recently seen in Pixar’s “Soul.”

Conducting the assessment is Will (Winston Duke), a prim and proper bureaucrat of souls who once walked among the living. Fear colors his decision-making, prompting him to side with the less sensitive, especially after Amanda, one of those he sent to Earth, suffers a tragic fate. However, Emma (a radiant Zazie Beetz), an inquisitive applicant, encourages him to reconsider his inflexible beliefs. Their exchanges electrify with muted intensity.

Duke bleeds a performance veering between containment and theatricality, inching closer to a catharsis of hope with each passing day before he must choose a victor. Bittersweet turns from the ensemble, chiefly Tony Hale, Arianna Ortiz and Benedict Wong (playing Will’s wise sidekick), suffuse nearly every scene with potent longing (or what Portuguese speakers would describe as saudade) — despite some touches of acting excess. Elevating the cleverly lo-fi and analog visuals, Oda includes subtle nods to his homeland, most notably in the music. The astonishing string-forward score by Antonio Pinto (composer for Brazilian modern classics “City of God” and “Central Station”) hypnotizes us into a state of melancholic weightlessness.

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A life-affirming epiphany, “Nine Days” is cinema of a higher calling, spiritual without denomination. Oda’s great alchemy consists of turning ideas that in someone else’s hands would yield platitudes into observed lyricism that factors in the negative counterpoints. His optimism chooses to root for kindness knowing evil exists. Transient as our time here may be, from the moment the color bars of our genesis ignite on the screen of destiny to when the light of our flawed broadcast goes out, our every breath, in pain and in pleasure, is a miraculous privilege.

‘Nine Days’

Rated: R, for language

Running time: 2 hour, 4 minutes

Playing: Starts July 30 in select theaters


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