Speaking to the Subconscious: A Look at David Stagnari's "Catharsis"
By: R.K. Hook
You can't describe David Stagnari's Catharsis in one word. The film is dreamy, hypnotic, gloomy, stark, surreal, lonely, and in many ways, therapeutic. It's a film that I return to at least twice a year. For whatever reason, and there are many reasons, the film continues to resonate with me, and brings me new pleasure each and every time I view it.
Catharsis is a film, but even more so, an experience. It took four years to make, with the same financial issues that most indie filmmakers run into. Still, with a small budget this film does look incredibly polished and leagues ahead of what I've seen from other indie filmmakers. Everyone involved seemed to have the same objective in mind: make a great film that will stand the test of time. And although Stagnari has said that he didn't intend for this film to be seen by a particular audience, I can't imagine how this film could ever go unnoticed.
The story is simple, yet complicated at the same time. We follow the character, written in the script as The Wanderer or God's Only Man, played by Dylan Murphy. His only true friend is his notebook and the words he writes in that notebook. His enemy is his conscious; that nagging voice of negativity. The man we follow throughout this film is us. I say us, because I feel that most people could easily relate to this character. He walks through churchyards, along desolate train stations, among the dead in a cemetery. He wanders for miles without ever seeing another human being. And while he's on his journey, the voice in his head booms. He has doubts about his future, the world around him, and his existence. He fears death, yet finds comfort in the cemetery, most likely because he ponders a time when the dinner table was full of family and life. Full of laughter and love. Now, he's totally alone on his journey. But on a basic level of thinking that is life. We're born alone, wander alone, and die alone. We're alone and struggle with that in our minds.
With very little dialogue and only one character that element of loneliness sweeps over me. I can feel it in my bones when watching the film. The trees are all bare. And the only other character we see is a mysterious man (played by David Stagnari) that follows our main character around. This mysterious figure has a watch that he winds throughout the film. Time is moving ever so quickly as our main character stays in limbo. This man is not so much another character as he is just a figment of imagination, or a figure from a deeper subconscious. The portrayal of loneliness makes me think of other characters like: Henry from Eraserhead, the astronauts in 2001: A Space Oddessy, Sam Well in Moon, and even Marlon Brando as the grief-stricken widower in Last Tango in Paris.
The pacing is deliberately slow (the film is under an hour long). It's like exiting one dream, and entering another. The visuals are stunning and inspiring and surreal. There's a scene where the character walks across a bridge. Once he's near the end he dissolves. I've often asked myself why the director choose to do this. A neat editing trick? No. The character dissolves because he's completely dead inside. The flesh is only a shell while the soul is empty.
In life we live, travel and come to a definitive end. Death.
The final scene is one that continues to perplex me. It's such a visceral ending, such a well-crafted ending that I'm constantly questioning what I've witnessed on the screen. I'm still not sure if I've seen anything more bizarre in films as I've seen in the final concluding minutes of Catharsis. The Wanderer ends up in a diner. The mysterious man finally catches up with him. They have a lengthy conversation. During this conversation we start to understand the purpose of this mysterious man's existence. He and The Wanderer are one and the same. He dwells in the mind of The Wanderer. After the conversation The Wanderer gets up and heads to the bathroom. This is where The Wanderer's transformation and healing starts. From here it gets messy. Literally.
A black, sludgy substance seems to be coming from an orifice of The Wanderer as he sits on the toilet. He writhes and convulses as this slime keeps pouring from his body. As this slime spreads throughout the bathroom a sac emerges from under the bathroom stall. Inside this translucent sac is the body of a naked man, fully grown and developed. He frees himself from the sac and bites through an umbilical cord.
He's cleansed. He's free. He's reborn.
The film is shot in stark black and white up until the final moments. After he's reborn, he exits the bathroom through a door that reveals a different landscape. Everything around him is vibrant; the colors, the sound. The trees are full of life and the birds chirp their serene songs. Instead of an empty land, with no hope, there is the sun beaming down with a promise for the future. The reason why it's such a challenging ending is because you can look at it entirely different each time. What if the character has died and gone on to some sort of paradise? Maybe he wasn't reborn in this life. Maybe all of his problems, anxieties and doubts destroyed him. After this life he continues a journey in a different plain of existence. I tend to think he was reborn and not dead. There is an argument for two different endings, though.
The paradise theory comes from a shot in the film where a telephone pole dissolves into a cross. Is this the character trying to find peace with God or a higher power? Earlier in the movie that mysterious man asks the main character if he's "going to the end?" What does that mean? Is it death? Does it imply that he's looking for salvation? It's both. The Wanderer will decide his own fate when he's good and ready. When he's exhausted all avenues. When he finally defeats his biggest challenger: His mind. When he fully realizes his cognizance he will have the answers.
I found this film by watching another film, a documentary on low-budget horror filmmakers called, Horror Business. The documentary is fascinating and follows a group of filmmakers who live by their work. They strive to be better, and some even struggle just to finish their projects. The passion from all of these filmmakers bleeds through the screen. Although I'm a fan of most of the filmmakers featured in that film, Catharsis stands out because it continues to challenge me. It's also very therapeutic for me. It's a film that speaks on so many levels. You can't watch it just once. It commands to be seen over and over again.
That's truly the criteria for what makes a film immortal.