Reviews Short Narrative

Death Offers Life (2019) – 3 stars

Director: Saheer Abbas

Writer: Madhu N.R.

Cast: Rashin Khan, Anuroop Thekkumkadan

Running time: 8mins

Shamefully, it has taken me three years of living in Amsterdam to finally visit the Van Gogh Museum. Safe to say it was worth the wait – and one of my main takeaways from the experience was that it’s easy to see why the tumultuous life of poor old Vincent still continues to capture the imaginations of artists, generations after his death. The potent blend of mental and physical suffering he endured as he struggled to produce some of the 19th century’s greatest art make Van Gogh an almost Christ-like figure; beaten and bloodied on his way toward leaving a legacy that has meant so much to so many in the eons since his passing.

As a result, Van Gogh has inspired a huge number of films (the most recent of which fittingly saw The Last Temptation of Christ’s Willem Dafoe portray the Dutch painter). Some have managed to deliver compelling and powerful films, while others have sadly dealt in sub-melodramatic titillation; carelessly lobbing around clichés about brilliant-yet-tortured creative types as a means to cramming a complex and intriguing life into an easily marketable biopic template.

This latter category is a particular disappointment because its films flinch away from any kind of visual or thematic ingenuity; instead they assemble disassociated factoids as bland beats in a heavily constructed narrative, and fail to offer very much of substance when answering the greater questions such a notable life throws up. To its great credit, Indian short-film Death Offers Life: Last Moments of Vincent Van Gogh does try to address the themes of life, death, artistic ambition and depression encapsulated in the final moments of Van Gogh, if only with varying degrees of success.

I should preface this review with a disclaimer; if you are looking for historical accuracy, Director Saheer Abbas’ left-field vision is probably not the film for you. For a start, the pale, red-haired Dutchman is here played by Rashin Khan, and while he puts in a suitably manic (if slightly hammy) performance, he is none of those things. However, as was the case when Cate Blanchett played Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, Khan works in the role because he works to give off the energy of the part, rather than seeking to imitate his character precisely.

The fact that impressionism trumps realism in this sense is rather fitting considering the style of the artist who delivered work like De Sterrennacht – which served to capture the aura or essence of a moment rather than a photo-real carbon copy of it. At the same time, in a world where Ghost in the Shell, Ghengis Khan, and even the Gods of Egypt can be unapologetically white-washed by mainstream cinema, an independent short casting an Indian actor to play Van Gogh makes a powerful statement on behalf of the many ethnicities which are still largely expunged from Hollywood’s worldview.

The plot takes place as Van Gogh having finally succumbed to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Again, there are some artistic licenses taken here, as our lead is largely on his own here – whereas accounts from the time state that Van Gogh died with his brother Theo at his bedside. It appears to take place in a kind of spiritual ‘in-between’, however, as Van Gogh is confronted by Death himself – and ultimately, it could be argued, we all have to go through that alone in the end.

Death (Anuroop Thekkumkadan) is perplexed as to why his latest charge is seemingly unafraid to meet him. Moved by the bad hand that Van Gogh has been dealt by life, Death offers him a choice – be reincarnated as an artist in the next life, or be reborn as an ordinary man. It is an intriguing question, and could do with a little more room than it is afforded in the narrow eight-minute run-time of Death Offers Life.

There is potential in this central idea to provide audiences with a compelling point of departure for their own philosophical musings on life. People often glibly assert in poorly written death-bed scenes that there wasn’t enough time, or if they could do it all over again, they would, but that’s because comfortable death-bed scenes tend to befall people who didn’t really do that much. Challenging the way people see the world, through art or actions, can be torturous – especially when underappreciated by society. If we were nailed to the cross or bleeding out from a gun-shot to the torso, and then we were given the chance to re-live all of our most excruciating, painful and depressing moments in the pursuit of some under-valued belief, would we?

Unfortunately in this case, Madhu N.R.’s script rather rushes by this discursive cross-roads – and perhaps due to the time constraints Abbas was determined to abide by, doesn’t dwell nearly long enough on the debate it touches upon. As the film is not particularly technically innovative – audio, shot-composition and make-up are all proficient, but sadly rather drab and unimaginative considering the subject matter – the choice Van Gogh is faced with is the key differentiator. Failing to let the actors really get their teeth into dialogue around that choice means Death Offers Life ultimately closes with a damp-squib over a starry night.

An appropriately stylised, if brisk homage to one of history’s great innovators. While the execution of the film’s ideas leaves a little to be desired, there is something in its central theme. If the filmmakers ever feel they could return to this subject matter to make a longer film, Death Offers Life could yet be reborn as a vivid, thought-provoking piece of cinema.

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