A Matter of Life and Death

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

I saw this film when I was very young. It left an indelible impression. I saw it again, when I was a little less young. I was able to identify and articulate a number of the things that led to that first impression. Which continued more or less unabated.

I revisit the film again, decades later.

Wait! Not only is A Matter of Life and Death a pretty crazy movie—which one of their’s isn’t?—but it’s finally a pretty silly movie. What has changed in my life or awareness to cause this change of heart? The UK/US problem was the extra-cinematic inciting incident, so of course it will be a big part of the actual film. It comes across as strange, though, and it comes across strangely. The Raymond Massey figure leads to particular head scratching. Too much! Additionally, the vaunted after life sequences are as strained as they are brilliant, even though they definitely are brilliant. Big hitters strike out more, don’t they?

Part of the film’s madness relates to a deeper, dubious-sounding assertion, and a deeper conviction on the part of the filmmakers, and of their devotées. It is the Romantic sentiment, here most operatically articulated, that love and passion and sensation and the most exquisitely executed Technicolor images really can conquer all. This notion probably demands a bit of sensible skepticism. But even the skeptic has to feel the sincerity and power of the Archers’ testimony. Dumb movies are just dumb, and some chick flicks can be dismissed. Not here. AMOLAD could have used some cooler heads, maybe, but it also demands respect and even humility. That opening is so reduced, so rapt, so Borzagian. Liebestod! Let’s remember that, beyond bickering between allies, the whole world had just been decimated. What’s more natural, more moving than a fantasy about the continuation of earthly life and earthly bonds? Powell and Pressburger are atheists? Even more so, then.

It should be mentioned again. The pictures! Every visual thing, every object has practically religious weight. There’s no more physical, object-aware oeuvre in the movies. Strangely, there’s also no less materialistic oeuvre. Finally, Roger Livesey!