Review by Sean Boelman
The afterlife is a common theme in cinema because death is one of the greatest mysteries of the world, but Edson Oda’s ambitious yet restrained feature debut Nine Days explores just the opposite: what happens before we are born? Carried by a phenomenal performance from Winston Duke, the concept may have worked slightly better as a short, but it’s a charming and poignant film nevertheless.
The movie follows a gatekeeper who is tasked with interviewing souls for a chance to be born in the real world as he encounters an unorthodox candidate who challenges his understanding of what it means to be human. It’s an intriguing premise, and the structure of following these personalities through their different trials to see if they are “worthy” of life is creative, albeit imperfect.
It feels like there is something off about the characterization of the film. Unfortunately, each of the characters, including the one that is supposed to be against the grain, feel rather archetypal. And in a movie that deals with subject matter that is so intensely introspective, the fact that the film doesn’t feel particularly personal is a bit of a hindrance.
Clearly, there is an existential angle to Oda’s musings, and many of the observations he makes about life and the world are quite fascinating. But there is a lot left unexplored, particularly in regards to the spiritual realm. Even though most of the plot points resolve themselves, there are still a few too many loose ends, like the protagonist’s assistant of sorts, to be entirely fulfilling.
That said, the cast is absolutely wonderful. Duke’s lead performance is so subdued, and in a movie that is largely quiet, this goes a long way. Zazie Beets’s turn is perplexing and unorthodox. There’s a bit of distance to the way in which she approaches the emotional aspects of the role, but it is still thoroughly affecting.
The film moves through the trials at a nice pace, and while it reveals its hand early, it manages to never get stuck in a rut of redundancy. Oda finds an excellent balance between the poignant poeticism of the ideas and an almost wistful humor that makes the movie feel heartwarming without being overly sentimental.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film, though, is its visual execution. The minimalist of the world-building creates a feeling of wonder and surreality that makes the movie so immersive. And a brilliant score by the massively underrated Antonio Pinto adds another layer of beauty and emotion.
Nine Days isn’t lacking in originality by any means, and it largely pays off. It’s a gorgeous-looking film with a lovely and touching script that will almost certainly be embraced by audiences.
Nine Days screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.