When most films are focused on action, there’s something to be said for a film more interested in dialogue over everything else. A stripped down, bare bones, minimalistic tale where the audience sits and listens as ideas are presented and arguments are made for each, instead of being led by the hand from one adventure to another. This is, by and large, why writer/director Andrew de Burgh’s The Bestowal is a unique experience by today’s cinematic standards. A philosophically-minded film, The Bestowal asks just as many questions as it seeks to answer as two characters embark on a thought-journey for its entire duration. With a narrative centered on one person’s choice of life or death, and the ramifications of that choice, the film may make audiences think that the stakes are low. However, the crux of de Burgh’s story is how significant every life lived can be when given the chance. It’s a valuable message for those patient enough to receive it.
Lost and without hope, wealthy business man Steven (Sam Brittan) decides to take his own life. Before he can pull the trigger, Death (Sharmita Bhattacharya) appears in an attempt to talk him out of it. Over the course of decades, Steven and Death debate the merits of life, the tribulations of existence, and the larger questions of the universe.
Through their various conversations, de Burgh reveals his own feelings on society, religion, and science. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the explanations de Burgh provides via his characters appear to be more of a collection of ideas, rather than proclamations of one above all others. For instance, when discussing good and evil, Death describes it as balance, as a Yin and Yang, an aspect of Chinese philosophy. Later, when discussing why evil happens, Death’s description of the source of evil is something more akin to the ideas from Kabbalah, a Jewish form of mysticism, wherein the Devil is actually the voice in your head shouting down your better aspects. Going a step further, evil and goodness aren’t bound by any Judo-Christian-based beliefs, but are forms of energy which pre-date the Big Bang. This not only enables de Burgh to create a unique foundation for his narrative, it also frees the audience from their personal preconceptions and challenges them to look at their view of humanity from a different perspective. It also requires the audience to commit to a lengthy conversation without any action. Instead, conflict is presented through the exchange of ideas, resulting in a volume of original, thoughtful concepts and exposition that flirts with annoyance as the script tells the audience solutions instead of enabling an experience.
The narrative is both The Bestowal’s strength and, in a sense, its weakness. When Steven and Death are deep in their discussion, the words flow like a river, crashing upon interesting ideas and moving on. What ends up creating strange stoppers are two aspects: accusations of humanities ruination due to technological use and the ever-increasing explanations of the larger spiritual aspects as play. Technology is a catch-all term for social media and cell phones, understood only through inference and context, but technology is also cars, medicine, pens, paper, clothes, and all the other things human use on a daily basis. By declaring technology the root of evil in the world, there’s a clear incomprehension of all the scope of what technology is as well as an ignorance of how technology also brings people together. Like anything else, it’s how a form of tech is used that determines how good or bad it is. Just like people. Just as argued by Steven and Death for the duration of the film.
However one may feel about the narrative, or the supposed societal death de Burgh suggests technology is the cause of, there’s no denying his technical prowess. With a simple three-camera production, de Burgh inserts a feeling of movement which adds energy and flow to the proceedings, even as the discussion lulls. Jumping between establishing shots and close-ups, the film makes the audience feel welcomed into the intimate conversation. Even as each setting changes in each act, the direction remains consistent and inviting.
While it may seem strange to say about a two-person cast, Bhattacharya is the absolute stand-out of The Bestowal. Her performance as a trans-dimensional being is effortless, feeling completely natural whether espousing complex ideas of determinism and interconnectedness or seemingly venting, grump-old-man style about technology. Nothing appears too far-reaching or nonsensical in Bhattacharya’s capable hands. What’s most impressive about her performance is how she transcends expectations surrounding the tropes of her character. You know the one: beautiful stranger appears to a man in the form which most pleases him in order to save his life. Instead, Bhattacharya breathes life into each scene, not through an overly animated or passionate performance, but by giving the impression of simply being. She is there, not because of Steven’s needs, but because of her role in the universe and the way the systems of the universe view life. This, of course, helps amplify the internal message of the paradoxical narrative of the film. Steven isn’t special in that she chooses to save him; rather, if each life is sacred, then his is as special as all the others. His life, and all others, are just as capable of doing good deeds as bad. Even if, as the film implies, the bad are purely selfish.
At its core, The Bestowal is a rumination on the significance of human connection, how the trappings of modern life distract and remove humanity from one another, creating an ever-growing sense of isolation and disillusionment despite being surrounded all the time. During the first of three acts, Steven grouses about his lack of time to do good works, something which Death suggests would improve his societal outlook. He works 16-hour days and deals with clients on the weekend, owns his home, and has enough wealth to retire at a young age, yet he keeps working out of a need for more. Making time would be as simple as walking away from the life he’s created and de Burgh uses this first conversation to explore why Steven doesn’t. Even as Steven acknowledges his own hypocrisy and recognizes a desire to do more for others, he can’t see past his own pain. To the audience receptive to de Burgh’s message, The Bestowal offers an opportunity for self-examination and change.
The Bestowal is currently screening at various festivals.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.