Anthology film The Seven Last Words is unified by music and human vulnerability

Seven filmmakers draw inspiration from an 18th century orchestral work based on the last words of Jesus.

Among the most foundational lessons in the teachings of Jesus are the seven last words he said on the cross. Words, in this case, meaning short phrases that encapsulate the range of feelings in his last moments. The crucifixion, beyond being the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus so that we can be forgiven for our sins, also represents him at his most human. He was no longer the son of God, but a man gripped with pain, doubt and fear. The enduring resonance of the story of Jesus Christ lies in his humanity, rather than his divinity.

In 1786, Austrian composer Joseph Haydn was commissioned to create an orchestral interpretation of this moment. These words and this music were the source of inspiration for the new film The Seven Last Words. Seven filmmakers — Juan Andrés Arango, Sophie Deraspe, Sophie Goyette, Karl Lemieux, Ariane Lorrain, Caroline Monnet and Kaveh Nabatian — tackle seven themes: forgiveness, salvation, relationships, abandonment, distress, triumph and reunion. None of the shorts in the anthology feature any dialogue, instead focusing on visuals to tell a story.

While inspired by the last words of Jesus, this is not a religious text. It does not specifically reference the dogma of organized religion and does not feature Jesus in any way. It is theological in that it explores the foundational questions of the human experience. What does it mean to be alive? What is a good life? What happens when we die? The interpretive binds are relatively loose, and we see different filmmakers telling stories across the world; from quasi-documentary to high fantasy. The tone is serious for the most part — sometimes to a fault.

Unlike most shorts collections, the cohesiveness is better than average as Haydn’s music that overlays the entirety of The Seven Last Words lends connection to the different filmmaking styles. The fact that every filmmaker is limited by similar aesthetic conditions related to a specific running time and no permissible dialogue also offers a sense of interconnectedness rarely seen in a film of this type. Even as the stylistic choices depart dramatically, they all feel part of the same whole, a pretty remarkable achievement.

Among the shorts, Sophie Deraspe tackling the most famous phrase, “My God. My God. Why have you forsaken me?” has the greatest impact. Adopting one of the most experimental structures, this entirely black and white section has a stagnant camera placed above or in the proximity of a bed, and a variety of humans live out life or death moments. As most of the shots are confined to above the shoulders only, we are often caught in ambiguity. Is that an expression of pain or pleasure? Ecstasy or agony?

Unlike the particular seriousness of the rest of the films, there is playfulness that brings an added layer of humanity. The fact that this particular approach is a popular aesthetic choice in “self-pleasure pornography” only makes it better. It is not voyeuristic as much as it is intimate. As it connects with the overarching theme of abandonment as well, it imbues so much meaning on orgasm, injury, birth and death and the relatively fine line that binds all these moments. The vulnerability and tenderness of this section resonate deeply.

The Seven Last Words is an above-average anthology film. It is a perfect length (a shade over 70 minutes) and has a strong sense of cohesion. There maintains an unevenness and not all the shorts resonate with the same impact. Yet each has moments of beauty and tackle difficult questions about the nature of the human experience. It is a film that adopts the trappings of experimental cinema (in both structure and occasionally aesthetic) but remains accessible due to the universal nature of its themes and stories. ■

The Seven Last Words opens in theatres on Friday, June 14. Watch the trailer here: