What it’s about: A man named Sean is running in Central Park and collapses under a bridge tunnel, dead of a heart attack. Ten years later, we’re introduced to his widow, Anna (Nicole Kidman). She’s in a cemetery, standing at Sean’s tombstone. She touches the headstone hesitantly and then walks away, as if she’s saying goodbye to him for the last time. She enters a car, turns to the driver whose been watching her all along, and simply says “OK.” We soon realize that this is her fiancé, Joseph, and she’s saying “Yes, I will marry you after all.”
During their engagement party, however, a 10-year-old boy appears, uninvited, and tells Anna that he’s Sean: not just that his name is Sean, but that he’s also her dead husband reborn. What’s more, he says, she shouldn’t marry Joseph but should be with him instead. Initially, she’s incredulous, but Anna quickly settles into uncertainty as Sean answers questions that only she and her family know about her late husband. How can this be?
Why it’s worthy: This is a bold emotional story that uses reincarnation as a means to explore loss and grief. The 10-year-old Sean has a fierce, unrelenting gaze and the young Cameron Bright (he was nine years old at the time of shooting) pulls off an unsettling performance; he feels like an adult stuck in a child’s body. Nicole Kidman is exceptional as Anna. We feel her struggle and see the part of her that knows this is silly; but the damaged part, the part that can’t let go of her dead husband, wants to believe. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the haunting, exquisite music score for Birth. Heavily indebted to Richard Wagner, the score feels elemental to the movie, like a DNA strand with its two chains coiling around each other.
I won’t attempt to describe to you the gorgeous opening scene of a man running in Central Park, or the devastating closing scene of a woman reeling with anguish on a beach—but I will tell you that the most mesmerizing shot in the film is a prolonged three-minute shot of the human face. It’s an intense close-up of Anna at a Wagner concert, and you know something momentous is happening to her. There’s no way I can adequately describe it to you, other than as a merging that occurs as you watch Anna’s emotions unfold. For that type of shot alone, I return to the movies again and again: to look and be carried away.