Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)

An inventive treatise on living and dying, and most important of all, of loving, as a legal trial in heaven decides the fate of an airman who is literally caught in an unprecedented life-and-death scenario. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,135

Dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
1946 | UK | Drama/Fantasy | 104 mins | 1.37:1 | English, French & Russian
Not rated – likely to be PG for thematic elements

Cast: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey
Plot: A British wartime aviator who cheats death must argue for his life before a celestial court.
Awards: –
Distributor: Sony Pictures

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Life & Death, Afterlife, Love
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Spoilers: No

One of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s most beloved films, A Matter of Life and Death is also one of the most inventive treatises on living and dying, set in the context of WWII and released only a year after the war’s end. 

Opening with shots of the Universe (the practical effects revealing its artificial construct—a construct that would recur in various aesthetical forms in the film’s dazzlingly modern if minimalistic production design), one might mistake it for a science-fiction extravaganza, but we are plunged into the war as a British airman without a parachute in a downed aircraft bids farewell to a distraught female American telephone operator working in a nearby Allied base. 

Peter Carter, however, cheats death and finds himself falling in love with her.  The folks in heaven, detecting an anomaly, want Peter back.  (Does this not remind you in some way of Pixar’s Soul?) 

“One is starved for Technicolor up there.”

A Matter of Life and Death is a fascinating tug-of-war between one man’s persistence to live—in the name of love, and an entire celestial force insisting he must respect the rule of law (with a legal trial in heaven to boot!). 

Literally caught in an unprecedented life-and-death scenario, Peter is treated by the filmmakers as a conduit in which not just the power of love is explored, but also the sometimes frosty British-American relationship during the war. 

The film cites historical references and figures, many of American and British origin, and these to me are some of the most interesting moments in the picture as history is put through the looking glass. 

Heaven is in black-and-white, while (Techni)colour is employed for sequences on Earth.  It all looks quite fantastic in the film’s new 4K restoration. 

Grade: A-




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