Review: ‘The Departure’

Hot Docs 2017

4 mins read

The Departure
(USA, 87 min.)
Dir. Lana Wilson
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)


After Tiller director Lana Wilson returns with The Departure, a haunting parable about death. The doc profiles Japanese Buddhist priest Ittetsu Nemoto and his mission to help people in despair save themselves from succumbing to their pain. The priest essentially acts as a one-man suicide prevention line offering callers a direct connection to their own spiritual advisor. Japan’s alarmingly high suicide rate ensures that Ittetsu’s line is always busy. Worse, this statistic bodes a dire forecast for the priest’s success rate. So many lost connections begin to take their toll.

Wilson shows the personal toll that Ittetsu pays when the demands of his job become a burden. Being a one-man suicide crisis hotline 24/7 puts incredible strains on the priest’s personal and professional lives. The doc literally sees Ittetsu consult an agenda in order to find a few available minutes in which he can pencil in some playtime with his young son. From morning to night, all he does is work.

Ittetsu provides a great character for the film, since The Departure charts his unconventional journey towards being a spiritual leader. A former punk singer, Ittetsu explains how he realised that his reckless and hedonistic lifestyle wasn’t leading to a bright future. In a bizarre turn of fate, he answered the call of the faithful when a local newspaper ran a nondescript classified ad soliciting priests for hire. By saving others, Ittetsu could save himself, or so he thought.

Wilson finds a unique existential and philosophical dilemma in this spiritual advisor as she captures the sharp decline in his psyche and health when the stresses of the job accumulate. The doc asks how one person can reasonably expect to save others when he can no longer take care of himself. Ittetsu faces severe health problems because of work-related pressure. His heart begins to fail him. The significance of this coronary struggle—a man of faith losing hope for humanity—is unmistakable. All he sees is death during every waking minute of the day, and the unrelenting tidal wave of depression and pessimism can’t help but consume his spirit. Even when he delivers workshops and devotes himself towards making the members of his flock choose life over death, The Departure witnesses a flame slowly flicker and fade.

The subject matter alone ensures that The Departure is a difficult and heavy film to bear, and its style only underlines it as an unflinching and unsentimental study of death. Methodical pacing and handsome yet sombre cinematography enshroud the viewer in the weight of Ittetsu’s burden. Visually and thematically, The Departure engulfs the viewer in the depression the priest faces as he fights to preserve life at all costs. The cloud of darkness can be all-consuming and suffocating, but The Departure offers a forecast of partly cloudy skies. While Wilson declines to back away from the melancholy of Ittetsu’s situation, she refuses to deny the inspiring selflessness of the priest’s devotion and sacrifice.

The Departure screens:
-Wednesday, May 3 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 6:15 PM
-Thursday, May 4 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 9:00 PM
-Friday, May 5 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 3:30 PM

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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