One of the odder and more curiously persistent subgenres in cinema history is the Afterlife Film. The Afterlife Film typically depict the death of a caddish fellow, who in life was too materialistic, or overly focused on his career, or perhaps never fully appreciated his loved ones, but was essentially good-hearted. This fellow will often find his shallow existence challenged by the benevolent bureaucracy of the heavens and slowly come to realize that he has work left to do back among the living.
Astral City: A Spiritual Journey’s origins may lie elsewhere – specifically in a 1943 book by popular Brazilian spiritist Chico Xavier – but it is very much an Afterlife Film. After successful doctor André Luiz (Renato Prieto) dies on the operating table he is transported to a grim, nightmarish purgatory world. After suffering there for a time, he is then beamed up to Nosso Lar (“Our Home”), a majestic city built on an invisible spiritual plane between Earth and the heavens. Nosso Lar is a kind of Utopian Socialist paradise where everyone is working toward self-improvement and spiritual study. At some point, people earn the right to reincarnate, and those who have reached self-actualization ascend to higher planes, which are presumably even nicer than Nosso Lar.
Or something. Honestly, even though this movie is constantly explaining the rules of this world, I still couldn’t get a handle on how it was all supposed to work. But the essential messages are clear enough (and we’ve heard them all before anyway): death is not the end, love is eternal, we were all put here for a purpose. Eventually, André travels back to Earth as a kind of ghost to remind his family that he exists
Good, and even great, Afterlife Films have been made – Heaven Can Wait (1943), A Matter of Life and Death, Carousel, and (if we’re being charitable) Ghost – but Astral City is not one of them. It duplicates many of the cliches of the genre with little of the wit required to really carry this sort of thing off. Instead we get the hodgepodge theology and self-serious tone of What Dreams May Come with visuals straight out of Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life (another great Afterlife Film, though one whose intentionally goofy vision of purgatory is meant to parody stilted conceptions of the afterlife). Here, the titular city looks like a New Age spa resort with lots of ostensibly relaxing white walls, glowing natural light, and bright blue reflecting pools. There are gardens and classical music concerts and lots of spherical glass buildings. All in all, it’s a pretty lame vision of the afterlife.
And the people you meet in heaven aren’t any better. The leaders of Nosso Lar speak with that sort of calm, slightly wry, resoluteness which is so common in Afterlife Films. Most of the inhabitants walk around in flowing white robes. (Though not everybody does, so I guess there’s no dress code in the afterlife.) Nosso Lar is not without its pockets of tension. There are family troubles and anxieties about finding one’s place in society. People long for their loved ones. And Earth’s difficulties – particularly World War II – do resound in the spiritual plane. But basically Nosso Lar is a pretty bland place.
And that’s the fundamental problem with Astral City as a film. There’s no tension, no excitement, no real emotion. The movie is just a pile of squishy feel-good cliches: all religions are more or less the same, everyone gets to heaven eventually, we will all be reunited with our loved ones. Pleasant though these sentiments may be, unless you already believe in Xavier’s brand of spiritism – as do millions of Brazilians, which helped make Astral City one of the highest-grossing Brazilian films in history – this movie is unlikely to persuade you to find out more.