Slow cinema has a long history in what is known as spiritual film, dating back to Paul Schrader’s articulation of what he calls transcendental style in his book of the same name written in the late 70’s. Director Paul Harrill provides a lovely contribution to the genre in Light from Light, the title phrase taken from the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made…” In the question and answer session after the screening of the film at Sundance, Harrill explained that he likes the idea of “Light from Light” as an articulation of the mystery of existence. How is it that something like light could have its origin in light? Why is there any light at all? This is a mystery.
Perhaps the question of mystery is central to Paul Harrill’s exploration of the world of grief in the wake of lost loved ones. The inexplicable nature in which the light of life vanishes when a loved one dies is just as mysterious as the question as to why we are here at all. Our existence and the subsequent (apparent) ceasing of that existence are equally puzzling, death being made all the more painful for us that remain in virtue of this unanswerable question. In the film, Richard (played by comedian Jim Gaffigan) struggles with grief after the loss of his wife, while Sheila (Marin Ireland), known for her on−the−side paranormal investigations, hears about a possible haunting in Richard’s house. Richard explains that he thinks it may be his wife, and Sheila agrees to take the case.
At one point, Sheila expresses a sentiment to the local priest who had asked her to investigate Richard’s haunting, “What’s the point of something if it’s just going to come to an end?” This theme is further illustrated in her attitude towards a budding romantic relationship between her son, Owen, and a local girl, Lucy, as she subtly tries to dissuade him from initiating a relationship, out of a less than genuine concern for the possibility of him getting his heart broken. Owen, for his part, expresses this same concern in a conversation with Lucy in which he worries that going to the homecoming dance with her would be pointless unless they were sure that they would eventually end up married. The idea is that things that end, such as our very lives, are meaningless if they are terminated. What’s the point? Why go to the dance at all? Why begin a relationship that will inevitably end? Why live? This is the question that Paul Harrill appears to tackle in his film through the metaphor of paranormal activity. In other words, the film seems to want us to reflect on the following thought: if there is something beyond the grave, then perhaps our lives are in fact meaningful.
Paul Harrill believes in contemplative cinema, and sees his role in many ways as someone who guides the viewer in contemplative or meditative practice. The fog that hugs the Smoky Mountains in which the film is set, the transcendent score, and the slow pace all work together to help us relax into the mystery, as Sheila methodically investigates Richard’s house for signs of a haunting using various techniques (infrared cameras, sound recordings or simply asking the empty rooms whether or not someone is there). All the while, as the two are getting to know each other, and in some sense find camaraderie in the wake of loss, disappointment, grief, and loneliness, we are given space and time to reflect on the nature of the unknown, specifically those unknowns that give us pain and sorrow. For Richard and for Sheila, there is a sense in which much of the pain of their lives would ease were the ghost to make itself known. For us, the limits of the possible continue to loom in our consciousness, but as we reflect, we just might, out of the corner of our eye, catch a glimpse of something that could be from the beyond. Reality, as Harrill put it, could crack. Perhaps all we need to answer Sheila’s question about the apparent meaninglessness of our existence is this shadowy glimpse.