Life After Death: Hereafter

10/26/2010 07:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hereafter is a curious movie. It unfolds languorously, sometimes a bit too slowly, with disparate threads that don't begin to become whole cloth until the final thirty minutes. The opening is stunning, a CGI perfect rendering of the tsunami six years ago. Redoing amateur video into a movie reality. Expanding the video we watched taken from a balcony down to the beach, then into the town, bringing us into the real world of people whose fate brought them to that moment in time.

And, us, the audience, knowing what is going to happen, lost in the movie, want to shout at the screen: stay in the hotel, go to a high floor, don't run, climb, climb.

It is a wrenching experience, just five minutes in.

A beautiful actress unknown to me, Cecile De France, plays a tourist wandering the shops looking for gifts for her lover's children. She, and all the others, have no idea of the enormity of the coming disaster. Watching them is like reading an Alan Furst novel set before the Nazi horror descended on Europe. In his books people go about their lives in Greece, or Poland, or France with no idea of the whirlwind awaiting them. They make decisions on leaving or not leaving, getting passports or visas, with Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Zyklon B the penalty for a wrong decision.

Cecile stops at a jewelry stand and buys a bracelet. Hundreds of other tourists and shopkeepers wander around her, living this morning like every other morning. It is paradise. And, then, the world changes. Death comes in a wave.

The woman exists or doesn't exist in the maelstrom and miraculously is saved. She returns to Paris and the life she had.

The director moves us along. A man with a gift is tortured by his gift. Because of a childhood illness, he can communicate, it seems, with the dead. He is a bridge to that greatest of mysteries. What happens when we die? For most of human existence we have comforted ourselves with stories of an afterlife. In this more enlightened age, we have no story, because officially and scientifically, nothing happens. Existence is simply a light switch. On and then off. Sentience, and then, well nothing, we guess.

Would that it were so simple, in theory or practice, for even as I write, no one really knows.

This is what Clint Eastwood explores amid other concerns in Hereafter. Powerful stuff here: a boy dies, his brother is left alone. A woman is saved, but her life is not what it was. A husband wishes for one last conversation with his wife, seeking forgiveness. A young woman, modern, curious, and seeing the man's gift as a first date discussion point, is destroyed when confronted with truths she should have left alone.

The man, a bridge between the living and the dead, condemned to be alone because of it.

The audience watches the story unfold in San Francisco, Paris, London. All of the characters are painfully human, completely sympathetic, dealing with loss, dealing with life, hoping for happiness.

I sat in the dark getting more and more comfortable with the Eastwood's elegiac pacing, the emotional bond building between audience and movie. Then, near the end, the man, boy, and woman come together in London.

What happens after death remains unknowable, but the two main theories -- nothing or something -- are allowed, well, to be. Hereafter reminded me of a truth I have discovered as an adult: it's far easier and more fashionable to be a skeptic, much harder to have faith. Harder still to defend a faith in a predominantly rationalist world.

So the movie resolves itself with the tsunami survivor, remembering things she believes can be explained, on a quest to make others understand. A boy shattered by grief seeking and finding meaning and comfort in a last goodbye to his lost half.

And, the man who can reach another world, who thinks that ability means he will always be unloved and alone in this one, finds that other great mystery of humankind, the ability to love and the miracle of being loved.

Even in that there is irrevocable truth: Hemingway wrote: "If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

For beyond the vagaries of relationships, if one dies, what is the other to do?

By the end I was profoundly moved. Hereafter deals with the human condition in a manner not found in most modern movies. It doesn't preach, it doesn't revert to the obvious, it makes you think, it makes you care about its characters, it ends in, if not joy, then, certainly not in sorrow. It may make you wonder at the modern theory of nothingness. It may make you wish you could believe.