In a recent comments thread, Ray G. suggested I check out the Brazilian film Astral City: A Spiritual Journey (Brazilian title: Nosso Lar, meaning Our Home). I’d heard of the movie, which boasted an unusually large budget for a Brazilian project ($12 million, according to IMDB.com) and went on to become one of the biggest commercial hits in that country's history, earning an estimated $25 million. But having read something about it when it came out in 2010, I promptly forgot all about it until Ray G.’s comment reminded me.
Happily, Astral City is available on DVD from Netflix. It can also be viewed online via Amazon and other services, for a price. Last night, I took a look at the DVD.
Other films have tried to depict the afterlife in terms that are more or less consistent with spiritualist teachings. They include the 1946 British production A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven), Albert Brooks' 1991 comedy Defending Your Life, and, perhaps most famously, the 1998 screen version of Richard Matheson's novel What Dreams May Come, starring Robin Williams. All of these movies have their strengths and weaknesses. Astral City, likewise, is not a perfect film; but I think it's probably the best of the bunch.
The movie is based on the channeled writings of the famed Brazilian medium Chico Xavier, who passed on in 2002. I haven't read Xavier's work and know little about him, but if Astral City is any guide, his interpretation of the afterlife is consistent with many other accounts.
The protagonist is Xavier's communicant, Dr. Andre Luiz, played by Renato Prieto in a well modulated, understated performance. The plot is simple and straightforward: Luiz, having died of complications from a gastrointestinal illness around 1930, finds himself in a frightening, misty purgatory known as the Umbral (shadowy) region, from which he escapes only when he summons true repentance and religious feeling. At that point he is transported to the beautiful astral city of the title, where he regains his strength, makes friends, and gradually learns to shed his ego and take joy in the service of others. Eventually he progresses enough to be permitted to undertake a mission to earth, where – in ghostly form – he observes his family and intervenes to restore his widow's new husband to health.
Basically, it's the story of a man who learns to love and, in doing so, redeems himself and comes to a deeper understanding of the meaning and purpose of existence.
All of this is pretty standard spiritualist teaching (or spiritist teaching, to use the term favored in Brazil, where Allan Kardec's 19th century work The Spirits' Book has had wide influence). The general narrative, and even many of the details, will be familiar to those who have read other purportedly channeled books, such as Anthony Borgia's Life in the World Unseen (1954), Oliver Lodge's Raymond, or Life and Deathb (1926), or Emanuel Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell (1758).
There are couple of new wrinkles. Dr. Luiz is told that he's initially relegated to the Umbral plane because he committed suicide. It turns out that he didn't actually kill himself in the usual sense, but that the accumulated negative thoughts and emotions of his life wore away his physical health and eventually resulted in his death. This is a pretty expansive reading of the term "suicide," one that I'm not too comfortable with. For one thing, it would seem to suggest that people suffering serious illnesses have only themselves to blame, which doesn't strike me as a particularly helpful message.
Actually, the whole notion that people are punished for suicide (however it is defined) is a bit problematic to me. The same idea crops up, even more prominently, in What Dreams May Come, where Robin Williams' wife, played by Annabella Sciorra, is sentenced to an eternity in limbo because she took her own life. The most comprehensive book on suicide from a spiritualist perspective that I've read is Suicide: What Really Happens in the Afterlife?, by Pamela Rae Heath and Jon Klimo. Making use of a variety of mediumistic sources, Heath and Klimo come to the conclusion that everything depends on the motive and circumstances; some acts of suicide are understandable (seeking relief from incurable pain) and even heroic (throwing oneself on a hand grenade to save one's comrades), while others are motivated by less admirable intentions. The gist of the book is that there is no simple answer and one size doesn't fit all, which seems like a sensible viewpoint to me.
Getting back to the movie, it must be said that the astral city is awfully bureaucratic. We are told there are 72 (!) ministries governing every aspect of life in the hereafter. People work in order to earn "merits," which are used to obtain permission to live in a house or go on a mission to earth. It all seems a bit dreary and utilitarian, and apparently you have to get used to asking your superiors for permission to do just about anything. This aspect of the film made me feel a little bit like the main character in the Netflix original series Lilyhammer – a mafiosa from New York who relocates to Norway under the witness protection program and finds himself facing an array of perfectly nice, impeccably polite, humanitarian-minded bureaucrats. Unlike Lilyhammer, however, Astral City doesn't side with the outsider and the rebel. Quite the opposite: Dr. Luiz must learn to submit in order to grow as a person.
We are told the good doctor "threw away his life" because of pride, vanity, and egotism. But in flashbacks to his earthly life, we see little sign of this. The film might have packed more of a punch if the earthly Dr. Luiz' faults were more vividly on display. On the other hand, he does exhibit pride and egotism, impatience and frustration, after arriving in the astral city, so we get to see this side of his personality eventually.
The film's pace is best described as deliberate. Some scenes moved too slowly for my taste, but as a whole, Astral City proceeds in a pleasantly stately and unhurried fashion, which is probably appropriate for a film that teaches us to learn the value of patience. By the way, the film is in Portuguese, with English subtitles. I did not find the subtitles distracting, though the English translation is sometimes clumsy. (The translations in the DVD's bonus materials are much worse.)
Astral City has been made with obvious sincerity and not even a hint of tongue-in-cheek derision. All the performances are good, with Prieto the standout. The Umbral realm is depicted with harrowing realism – probably the most effective dramatization of a hellish, fog-shrouded limbo I've seen. The astral city is very beautifully realized, largely through digital matte paintings. These are not always altogether realistic, but I actually liked the artificiality of certain shots; the unreality somehow translated into a sense of hyperreality, at least for me. The set design is imaginative and pleasingly varied, from the musty windowless chambers where badly disturbed persons must be purged of their traumas, to the stylish interior of a private home that mixes period detail with modernistic touches. I particularly liked the hospital setting, which looked very much the way I would imagine a spiritual center devoted to health and rejuvenation to look.
In some respects, the layout and design of the astral city are reminiscent of modern-day theme parks. No doubt this approach could be fodder for skeptics, but I liked it. When I was a small child, I was fascinated by Disneyland and Disney World, not so much because of the rides and attractions, but because they represented a perfectly manicured, clean, beautiful environment. I used to do my best to sketch my own theme parks and other idealized communities, which always featured a lot of water and greenery and stylized architecture. These days I wonder if I was dimly recalling, and feeling nostalgic for, an afterlife environment along those lines. So the fact that the astral city in the film looks a lot like the kind of thing I did my best to visualize as a child is a plus for me.
Incidentally, the designs were based on drawings produced by Heigorina Cunha, a medium who showed her work to Chico Xavier and was told she had represented Our Home accurately.
Although it's barely mentioned in the bonus features on the DVD, the film boasts an original score by famed postmodern composer Philip Glass. I found this symphonic score generally effective, though occasionally a bit monotonous.
For its seriousness of purpose, its splendid art design, and its obvious concern with fidelity to Chico Xavier's writings, Astral City is well worth visiting. But be warned: once you get there, you may not want to leave!