The strength of “Nine Days” is not so much the scenario (although that is imaginative and well-constructed) but the mood Oda sets, the clarity with which he establishes this world, how it operates, its rules and traditions. There is a score by Antonio Pinto but it drops out for long stretches. When music shows up, it has great resonance and power. Oda’s script is filled with talk. The scenes are long and often deal in very difficult metaphysical and ethical questions. It’s common to hear people repeat, ad nauseum, that “show, not tell” is an important rule. But there are plenty of very “talky” films that are riveting. Rules are made to be broken, and Oda’s script does. The actors help in this, approaching the material with vulnerability and intelligence.
Each scene shows the process unfolding. Every detail is important. One of the candidates, Emma (Beetz), is different than the others. She can’t play by the rules of Will’s questionnaire. She asks questions about his questions. When presented with a hypothetical scenario and asked what she would do, she sometimes says, “I don’t know.” Unheard of. Will is frustrated by her and yet is strangely drawn to her, too. Beetz, with her transparent face, her beautiful emotional openness, embodies receptivity. She takes it all in. She may be a new soul, but she can’t help but look at Will and sense his unfinished business. She asks him why his experience as a living human was so painful, and Will refuses her requests for more information. He shuts the filing cabinet on his own story.
There are other films that stroll into this metaphysical almost spiritual territory, Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life” perhaps the most obvious example. In “Defending Your Life,” the recently-dead are sent to a Purgatory-type resort, where they are judged on whether or not they are ready to “move on,” presumably to Heaven. Brooks approached this material with humor, and achieved a profound result. “Nine Days,” however, has a yearning bittersweet quality, generated from Will’s unhappy awareness of the pain awaiting the unborn souls when they leave his care. There’s also the question of whether or not life is worth living, even in the face of all that pain, and the eventuality of death.