By Jaie Laplante, Director of Programming, Miami Film Festival
Mateo Gil is an important talent among his contemporaries in the Spanish film scene. He began his career 20 years ago as Alejandro Amenábar’s writing collaborator, working on the stories and screenplays of transcendent genre filmsThesis (1996) and Open Your Eyes (1997), as well as the Oscar-winning drama The Sea Inside (2004), which dealt with right-to-die moral questions. But Gil has long since stepped into his own as a visionary director – beginning with his short, “Allanameinto de morada” (1998), which was an official selection at Miami Film Festival. Three brilliant features have followed: Nobody Knows Anybody (1999); Blackthorn (2011), with which Gil visited Miami Film Festival for a special screening at Olympia Theater, and his dazzling, theologically sophisticated new third film, Realive, which world premiered at Montreal’s Fantasia festival this past weekend.
We all know we can’t live forever. It’s part of what drives us to have kids, build monuments, leave legacies. We hope to remain, somehow, even after we’re gone; for our names to live on. Perhaps the efforts we put into not being forgotten provide us the mental comfort that our time on this earth will have meant something in a bigger picture; otherwise, “all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain,” as Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) said in the classic 1982 Blade Runner, when it was time to die.
Such concerns weigh heavily on the mind of the hero of the uncommonly intelligent and profoundly revelatory Realive. A modern, thirty-ish American man named Marc Jarvis (well-played by British TV star Tom Hughes, making an assured leap into a feature-film leading man role) is a successful artist who also heads his own advertising firm. He’s single but entangled with a woman he’s been slow to recognize as his soul mate, Naomi (Oona Chaplin). His life is not perfect; he’s recently witnessed the painful terminal illness of his father – an inoperable cancer that he has just learned he has inherited, meaning that he has less than a year to live. The shock is followed by sorrow – and then a denial instinct that will soon take Marc to uncharted territory.
The title credits of Realive visually hint to read the title as “re-alive”, which immediately heightens intrigue, for “re-” means either “again” and “backward”. Then comes Gil’s brilliant first scene, one of those moments of cinema so viscerally powerful it wracks your entire body into spasms. In voiceover, Marc asks us to imagine what it would be like to be born totally conscious and aware of everything around us. Thanks to Gil’s piercingly direct first shot, the imagination explodes with the exact implications of the narrative’s thesis. And then the word “resurrection” is mentioned.
We are flung-forward into a medical laboratory of the future – in 2084, under the direction of regenerative medicine guru Dr. Victor West (Barry Ward). A new nurse, Elizabeth (played by Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon, making good use of her otherworldly qualities), has been hired to take care of one of the lab’s most prominent new patients, known simply by code name “Lazarus”. When Elizabeth inquires who “Lazarus” really is, Realive cuts back in time and we finally meet Marc, in 2015, receiving the worst-case prognosis about his health, from his doctor.
These crisp, enlivened early sequences move quickly, before we really have any time to piece together how the puzzle of the story will fit together, which is Gil’s smart strategy to keep our connectivity to his hero emotionally charged. We follow Marc as he goes about putting his affairs in order…saying goodbye to his loved ones…writing his will. “When you get rid of everything you ever were,” he wonders about his remaining time, “What’s left?” Marc’s searching mind, having faced death as directly as we know to be possible with our current understanding, turns to cryonics…the modern idea of deep-freezing ourselves at death, in the hopes that a future generation of humans may restore us to life, should science and technology evolve to that point…and our curiosity of where Realive is going is propelled with mental light speed into the philosophically infinite. It’s like an entire kettle of popcorn suddenly pops all at once.
Or plummeting down Lewis Carroll’s proverbial rabbit-hole. And this is where the questions on the other side of those powerful human instincts not to disappear upon death really start to get asked. What impact does eternal life (even eternal youth) have on individual happiness? How about for a world groaning under the increasing weight of a human population crunch? Not to mention the moral questions of economic inequity and ageism. (Cryonics is a real field. In 1967, the 73-year-old Dr. James Bedford became the first human being to be cryonized upon death, leaving behind $100,000 for cryonic research. What will $100K in 1967 dollars be worth in 2084, for instance? Realive presents regenerative technology as prohibitively expensive, requiring fundraising efforts among the super-wealthy as an ongoing necessity just for their single “Lazarus” project. Does Dr. West make his regenerative attempts on a first-frozen, first-unthawed basis? Suffice to say his interests lie in a human specimen calculated for charisma and the greatest appeal to media interest, which will not have changed much in 70 years, in a prediction that is among Realive‘s most reliable bets.)
With this debut in Montreal at one of the world’s premiere genre festivals, and with the announced Spanish premiere in October at another genre festival, Stiges, Gil and his backers on this project are clearly positioning Realive to win support from an assuredly receptive (and populous) audience – undoubtably a smart move. Yet Realive’s exceptional quality, and expert entanglement with the very deep human drama of the meaning of our time, and where we are going (the question of romantic love as a definition for happiness, or the dissolution between the private and the personal) make it a film worthy of a very broad level of engagement with filmgoers, such as films like 2001, The Matrix or the recent Rise of the Planet of the Ape before it.