It feels so good to have a movie to write about again. For those of you who have followed this column for the last seven years, please know that, as long as films like Cold Souls are released, I will continue this column, even though it will be on an irregular basis.
Cold Souls is a jaw-dropping, original film, with the only possible comparison being to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favorite films in Spiritual Cinema.
In Cold Souls, the gifted actor Paul Giamatti plays himself as an actor who is having an impossible time connecting to the character Uncle Vanya that he is about to portray on stage. He feels so incapable of connecting to the seemingly soulless character that he must portray that, in desperation, he visits a clinic where souls are extracted and placed in storage.
Even though he is skeptical about removing his soul, he agrees to the process because he is promised that his constant inner turmoil will be relieved once his soul is extracted. The soul extraction itself is painless and quick. While he refuses the option of looking into his soul to see its essence, he is persuaded to see what it looks like after the extraction. Whereas other souls he is shown have the appearance of large fruit, it turns out his soul looks like a chickpea!
Yes, much of the first two-thirds of the film is extremely humorous as Giamatti explores the soul extraction, then has to live without a soul, then chooses to try out another soul as a temporary replacement.
Ultimately, he realizes how empty he feels. He then begs to have his own soul re-implanted only to discover that it has been pirated and sold on the black market to the wife of a Russian soul-trafficker who yearns to be an actress and wants the soul of a famous American actor. She has been told that Giamatti’s soul is actually the soul of Al Pacino and is utterly delighted.
The last act of the film takes on a much more serious tone as Giamatti travels to Russia to reclaim his soul with the human “mule” who has been trafficking souls back and forth. The woman whose soul he temporarily borrowed was also in Russia. His desire to find her leads the film in a tragic direction here, as well. Not to worry, the film does end well.
“Original” is way too weak a word for Cold Souls. The constantly inventive screenplay by writer/director Sophie Barthelme immerses us so completely in the concept of the film that we are absolutely swept along in its audacity, humor, drama and pathos.
From a spiritual standpoint, the film is breathtaking as it delves into our personal relationship with our own soul. The film is very careful, and brilliant, to say very early on that the soul-extractors have no real idea what the soul is and does. They just know how to extract it. This conceit is crucial, because it gives us in the audience the opportunity to decide for ourselves the importance and functions of our soul.
Paul Giamatti (Sideways, John Adams, etc.) is one of my very favorite actors and it is hard to imagine anyone else playing this role. His restless unhappiness, skepticism, hope, humor and empathy as he evolves through the film capture us and hold us in his thrall. What would it really be like to have to live without a soul? Or a borrowed soul? What does our soul really mean to us? All these questions and emotions play out in Giamatti’s face and body throughout the film.
Films that ask but don’t answer the big questions about who we are and why we are here are indeed the “soul” of Spiritual Cinema. Cold Souls will provoke those questions for you, your friends and your loved ones. What a great gift that is to those of us who have been starved for this kind of spiritual film for such a long time.
Let the discussions begin.