On Body and Soul (2017), Hungary, directed by Ildikò Enyedi.
Reviewed by Dr Franco Ferrarini
Whereas defining ‘Body’ should be straightforward, the same literal approach may not apply to defining ‘Soul’. Soul may be defined in strictly religious terms (i.e. an immaterial entity, considered immortal by some creeds, which leaves the body at death) or as the set of mental properties which make humans different from other living beings (i.e. thoughts, emotions, creativity, curiosity, abstract thinking). Director Ildikò Enyedi prefers the latter interpretation of ‘soul’ as she narrates the story of Mària (Alexandra Borbély) and Endre (Géza Morcsànyi), respectively a quality inspector and a financial director, who meet in their workplace, a slaughter-house in the outskirts of Budapest. Both seem unable to entertain normal relationships with other people. In Endre’s case a physical impairment affecting his ‘body’: a paralyzed left arm, which he is ashamed of, limits his connections with others to strictly work-related matters. Regarding Mària, a crippling form of obsessive-compulsive behaviour, part of her autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), might be interpreted as a defect of her ‘soul’. Mària is incapable of normal communication, and shows neither emotion nor expression when talking to colleagues; instead she uses puppets symbolizing her colleagues to communicate with. Her inability to show emotions along with her colleagues’ bullying behaviour heightens her isolation and puts her at serious risk of considering suicide. Suicide is not at all rare in people with ASD, as recent research shows that 21.3-66% of an adult population with ASD and Asperger’s syndrome respectively contemplated suicide vs 17 % in the UK general population and 59% in a psychotic population (1,2). Moreover, even the presence of autistic traits in a population not formally diagnosed with ASD is a risk factor for suicidal ideation, explained by feelings of thwarted belonging and burdensomeness (3). Interestingly, suicidal risk shows different characteristics in patients with ASD compared with those in the general population: in the former female gender is more frequently affected and the prevalence of depression is lower (32%) than that of the general population (66%) (1). However, there are some similarities in that social isolation, loneliness, social exclusion, lack of community services, under-achievement, and unemployment play a role in ASD suicidality as in the general population (2). The prevention of suicide is more difficult in people with ASD than in the general population because of the inability of affected patients to express their emotions.
Besides being outcasts because of their physical and mental ailments, what else do Maria and Endre have in common? Surprisingly, they share the same dream where two deer, a male and a female, cuddle each other and look for food and water in a grey, cold and snowy environment. The difference between the material world and the realm of dreams is contrasted by alternating the brutality of life in the slaughter-house where blood spills abundantly from slaughtered cattle, and the calm and ethereal atmosphere surrounding the two deer in the dream. Does the director push the viewer to choose the Soul’s (dreamy) world over the Body’s (slaughter-house)? I do not think so. In fact, when Mària and Endre’s relationship starts to blossom, their shared dream stops haunting them. It seems plausible that the dream was an escape mechanism from the sadness of their material lives. The viewer is regularly reminded of a ‘possibly better life’ in the brief shots of sun shining on the slaughter-house, fragments of hope conflicting with both the eerie slaughter-house environment and the cold, snowy and somewhat unreal environment of the dream. A dream by itself cannot be the antidote to the ‘Toil and Trouble’ of life.
This is not an easy film to watch, but it is definitely rewarding to the astute viewer who appreciates its subtle metaphorical language and hidden messages. It truly deserves the Golden Bear award in Berlin Film festival 2017, and the best foreign film Oscar nomination in 2018.
- Cassidy S, Rodgers J, ‘Understanding and prevention of suicide in autism’, Lancet Psychiatry 2017;4(6): e11.
- Huguet G et al, ‘Autism spectrum disorder and suicidality’, Encephale 2015;41: 362-9.
- Pelton MK, Cassidy S, ‘Are autistic traits associated with suicidality? A test of the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicide in a non-clinical young adult sample’, Autism Research 2017;10: 1891-904.