'The Departure': Film Review

The Departure - Still 1 - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
Quietly devastating.

Lana Wilson's documentary centers on a Japanese priest who specializes in suicide prevention.

Most people would probably be reluctant to answer a newspaper ad reading "Monk wanted. No experience necessary."

But fortunately, that's exactly what the subject of Lana Wilson's new documentary did. He's Ittetsu Nemoto, a 44-year-old Japanese former punk rocker and troubled club kid turned Buddhist monk who has made a specialty of counseling depressed individuals contemplating suicide. In its poetic portrait of a man whose quest to help others has cost him dearly both emotionally and physically, The Departure proves quietly profound. Wilson, who previously co-directed the acclaimed documentary After Tiller, handles the emotional subject matter with a subtle restraint that makes the film all the more moving.

Eschewing narration or commentary by anyone other than Nemoto, the film has a Zen-like quality that would be soothing if the subject matter were not inherently disturbing. One of the most powerful scenes shows a session conducted by Nemoto with a group of depressed people. He instructs them to write down on small slips of paper the things they love most in life, then the names of three loved ones, and finally three things they'd like to experience but haven't. Close-ups of the slips of paper reveal some of the answers including "love," "food" and "travel the whole world."

Nemoto than asks them to crumple the first three slips of paper into a ball and throw them away. Then the next three and then the final three. He tells them that this represents what dying will be like, the loss of everything they've known and loved. Then they lie on the ground, cloths on their faces, as he quietly rings a bell in a symbolic representation of death.

The film depicts several of Nemoto's interactions with the people he's counseling, the camera discreetly looking away at the more intense moments of their anguish. It soon becomes clear that the stress of his calling is exacting a toll on Nemoto, who seems to be constantly on call; at one point he receives a text message reading simply, "I want to die."

"I take on so much of their suffering. I can never show them how draining it is," Nemoto tells his wife, with whom, like his infant son, he spends too little time. We learn that his health is precarious, with blocked arteries that aren't being helped by his excessive drinking.

Despite the nobility of his calling, Nemoto never comes across as a saint. Indeed, he had deeply personal reasons for what he does. Midway through the film, he explains that when he was in the fifth grade a beloved uncle committed suicide. During his high school years, two close friends did the same. He became determined to change the trajectory of his life after he experienced a traumatic motorcycle accident in his twenties.

"I don't want to have a long life just for the sake of it," Nemoto says. "A short life can be meaningful, too." The Departure beautifully illustrates just how meaningful life can be.

Production companies: Drifting Cloud Productions, Roast Beef Productions, ITVS, Candescent Films, Artemis Rising Foundation
Distributor: Matson Films
Director-producer: Lana Wilson
Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Lilly Hartley, Jeffrey Tarant, Mike Lerner, Diane L. Max, Regina K. Scully
Screenwriters: David Teague, Lana Wilson
Director of photography: Emily Topper
Editor: David Teague
Composer: Nathan Michel

87 minutes