On “A Haunting in Venice”

by Movie Reviews and Recommendations, October

In his book A Secular Age, modern philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of the “buffered self.”  The phrase refers to a person who is closed off to the idea of anything supernatural.  Think of a sponge’s opposite.  The “water” of transcendent reality is simply unable to saturate one who is “buffered.”  It’s a striking articulation of what’s arguably a common trait among modern men.  A Haunting in Venice, the latest Agatha Christie murder mystery movie adaptation, challenges the “buffered self” through its use of the horror genre.

A Haunting in Venice Trailer

At the film’s beginning, Detective Hercule Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh, who also directs) has settled into retirement in Venice, seemingly set on abandoning his craft for a more peaceful lifestyle.  However, Poirot’s old acquaintance, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), arrives to implore his help.  Oliver claims to have witnessed a seance conducted by a psychic, and she’s convinced it’s real.  Poirot, a skeptical atheist, casts off the notion as ridiculous, but he reluctantly agrees to accompany Oliver to another seance which the psychic will be conducting on Halloween night.  It will take place at the home of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), who wishes to speak to her deceased daughter’s spirit.  When the seance begins, so does the action.  Poirot–a clear example of someone who is “buffered” or unwilling to accept the supernatural–finds himself in a mystery filled with occurrences that are rather difficult to explain, to say the least.

Determined to discover the rational explanations for these occurrences, Poirot leads an investigation that shakes his skepticism toward transcendent realities.  The viewer journeys along with him in a back-and-forth psychological ride.  “That was real!  Wait, no it wasn’t.  That time it surely was!”

This mental roller coaster is made possible by Branagh’s brilliant use of the horror genre.  While its execution must be performed with care, horror’s power lies in this case on the ability to shake–or shall we say, “spongify”–the “buffered self.”  At one point during the action, Poirot himself describes what’s at stake when it comes to confronting the possibility of the supernatural:

“Please understand…I would welcome, with open arms, any honest sign of devil, or demon, or ghost.  For if there is a ghost, there is a soul.  If there is a soul, there is a God who made it.  And if we have God, then we have everything.”

In summary, everything is at stake here.

At the end of the film, Poirot also exemplifies the change that can occur when one encounters a transcendent reality.  While it’s not clear if he now believes in God at the end of the film, Poirot is shaken out of his retirement.  As the credits roll, he is seen doing that which he was made to do–-solving cases.  He’s been, in a certain sense, restored to life.  He’s been “spongified.”

Now, I’m certainly not claiming that we should all go seek real-life encounters with ghosts and demons.  Just the contrary.  However, through the horror genre, we are reminded that maybe all is not as meets the natural eye.  To the “buffered” modern man who denies the supernatural, A Haunting in Venice seems to ask, “Are you sure?”

Note:  For those who may be nervous to see a film that uses a seance as a plot driver, not to worry.  While the film does contain disturbing, jumpy scenes, the seance ends rather quickly at the beginning of the film in a relieving manner, and there are no more scenes of that kind.  It merely serves as a springboard for the remainder of the film.

This article was originally published HERE.

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