At a time when most movies are big-budget spectacles that entertain for a few hours but leave your mind the minute you exit the theater, movies that stick in your soul are rare and refreshing. Japanese-Brazilian filmmaker Edson Oda’s Nine Days (now out in theaters) is like that. I saw it a month ago and still think about it. It’s probably the most creative, spiritually provocative, ambitious movie about Big Ideas I’ve seen since Arrival (2016). To be clear: it’s not a theologically orthodox Christian film. But it’s the type of film I’m eager to watch with my church’s small group.
At times reminding me of The Good Place, The Truman Show, Soul, or Synecdoche, New York, Oda’s debut film ponders an array of big spiritual questions in clever and compelling ways. This isn’t a movie like Tenet, in which the ideas are so big and confusing that it sucks the enjoyment out. It’s more like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—a film with lots on its mind, but even more on its heart.
The premise of Nine Days is admittedly wild. Will, played by Winston Duke (Us, Black Panther), is some sort of celestial being (an angel?) who has a portfolio of human souls he handpicked to have “a chance at life,” and whose lives he now monitors daily via point-of-view video footage he records on VHS tapes and archives in file cabinets (the film is randomly obsessed with analog aesthetics).
Unlike Christof (Ed Harris) in The Truman Show, who meticulously controls the “creation” in which Truman (Jim Carrey) lives, Will—note his name—is powerless to control what happens to his souls once he chooses them to have a chance at life. When one of Will’s humans—his favorite, in fact—suddenly dies, it leaves a “vacancy” in life that he must fill. A protocol is set in motion in which a handful of “soul candidates” go through a boot camp of sorts, featuring “what would you do?” tests, “trolley problem” philosophical thought experiments, and one-on-one interviews with Will. During the nine-day process, candidates are gradually dismissed until one soul left wins a chance at life.
Exploration of Free Will
As fastidious as Will is in selecting the right candidate to be born, there are no guarantees the chosen soul will live up to the high privilege of life. When things go well in life for the souls he’s selected, Will watches like a proud father: a violin prodigy gives a virtuoso solo; a woman is radiant with joy on her wedding day. But sometimes things don’t go well. One of Will’s chosen souls is often bullied and eventually responds with a burst of retaliatory violence. Another seems to be doing well and then, abruptly, commits suicide. It’s an emotional rollercoaster for Will as he watches how these souls fare in the cruel world.
When the souls live into the fullness of their creativity and practice selfless love—which is to say, when they image their Creator—they make Will proud. But when the souls make sinful choices that lead to suffering, it grieves Will. The film never explicitly mentions or depicts God, but his presence and perspective are implicit in the proxy of Will, raising various questions about the divine: If there’s a God, why did he make the world? Why would he create souls, knowing they would sin and suffer?
Existence Is Pure Grace
The question I left the film asking is this: Why was I born, and given the chance to experience life—to breathe, to love, to hear a Beethoven symphony, to swim in the Indian Ocean, to nap on a rainy Sunday afternoon—when I didn’t have to be?
There is no answer except grace. God’s choice to create us—and a world for us to cultivate, explore, and enjoy—is an act of pure grace. It’s gratuitous love we didn’t deserve.
God’s choice to create us—and a world for us to cultivate, explore, and enjoy—is an act of pure grace.
This comes through beautifully in Nine Days. For all its mind-bending philosophizing and melancholic reflections on depression and malaise, above all it’s a film about the joy and gift of life. It’s such a precious gift that we weep watching the “soul candidates” who long for a chance at life but don’t get it. Among other things, the film’s high view of “a chance at life” is resolutely pro-life. You can’t leave this film thinking life is cheap or easily extinguished when it fits our convenience. No, life is a sacred, divinely sparked miracle. We dare not minimize that.
Beauty Is a Foretaste
The most haunting scenes in Nine Days happen when failed “soul candidates” receive the crushing news from Will that they won’t be the one selected for life. Will doesn’t just show them the metaphorical door. He asks them to describe the most beautiful thing in life they can think of, and he creates a simulation of it for them. These moments of grace are tender and transcendent—small tastes of the longed-for life.
At first they feel like cruel substitutes for the real thing, but Oda makes these scenes the film’s emotional and sensory centerpieces. It evokes C. S. Lewis’s idea that our deepest joy is tied to an awareness of longing—the feeling of simultaneous elation and heartache when we encounter a moment of resonant beauty that we know is only a pale flicker of a more brilliant Beauty. It’s the experience of being teased by eternity within the confines of time.
Lewis puts it this way in The Weight of Glory:
We want something else which can hardly be put into words to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it unto ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. . . . Yet at present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.
“At present we are on the outside of the world.” This is one way Lewis describes the Sehnsucht feeling that often accompanies beauty, nostalgia, and memory. But it’s also a phrase that could describe the entirety of Nine Days, a film that takes place “on the outside of the world,” and viscerally captures the intensity of our longing to find “the place where all the beauty came from.” I don’t know how influenced Oda is by Lewis (if at all), but few films have given me more Lewisian vibes than Nine Days.
Final Two Words
To be sure, Nine Days is not without its theological problems and illogical aspects. It’s never clear, for example, how an unborn “soul” can be a soul in any sense, with its own personality, independent of relationships and environments that form personalities.
Repeated throughout the film is the assertion that “you” as an unborn soul will still be “you” once born, but this suggests a sort of immutable “youness” that exists in a vacuum, independent of formation outside some irreducible self (a very 21st-century Western idea). And while it’s absolutely riveting to watch, in the film’s climax, when Will recites portions of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” it also underscores the film’s romanticizing of the expressive Self—over and above simple appreciation for the preciousness of individual lives.
Still, Nine Days has moments of beauty and brilliance the likes of which I’ve not seen in any other film this year. It ponders existence with the sort of awe and wonder that can lead the thoughtful Christian viewer to worship God.
Instead of getting stuck on the “why” questions of our existence, perhaps the better response is simply gratitude that we exist. How utterly gracious of God to give us life—in all of its fragile pain and arresting beauty—when he didn’t have to. The last two words in Nine Days are really the only ones that can make sense of the mystery of being: “Thank you.”