'Departures' and 'Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love'

What can be enriching, even surprising, is to watch a foreign film and be immediately struck by the profound differences that exist between cultures, some deeply subtle, others far more blatant, evident in interactions, mannerisms, the scaffolding of life itself, all so unique and so compelling.

"Departures" offers the audience such an opportunity for it constructs a tender and at times unsettling bridge between the living and the dead.

Briefly, the film tells the story of Daigo (Mashiro Motoki), a young cellist and member of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. He is married to Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). Unexpectedly, the orchestra is disbanded and Daigo and Mika return to the prefecture of Yamagata and to his old family home, which he inherited when his mother passed away. He must find work, and opportunities for cellists are rare. He answers an ad in a newspaper for a "departures" assistant. Thinking it's a travel agency, Daigo goes to the office to apply.

What he discovers is that the job is for a "departed" assistant, and the position entails "encoffination" of the deceased, an elaborate ritual of washing and dressing a loved one and then slowly placing the body into a coffin as the grieving family and friends look on.

Daigo is at first repelled by the work, so much so that he can't share with Mika what the job involves. But he is also touched by the profound tenderness that his mentor, Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), exhibits as each step is slowly carried out. He is also struck by the impact this ceremony has on the family — the ritual is a gift, a farewell, a closure.

American critics have faulted Japanese films for being overly sentimental, and "Departures" has its moments. But it is also beautifully acted and courageous in its intent. When it won an Oscar last year for Best Foreign Film, there was an audible gasp from those who believed it was not the best of a strong field; the voting Academy, however, disagreed.

If a film has the power to touch the audience, to elicit an emotive response, then it has achieved far more than most films. And the willingness of director Yojiro Takita to explore this subject intimately, while telling the story of how two young people come to terms with Daigo's work is compelling from the first frame.

"Departures" explores a facet of the human condition from which we almost reflexively turn away and it does so with insight and subtlety.

Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love

Music. How to define or explain this marvelous social construct of organized sound, used to convey moods and impressions and emotions. It possesses the inherent power to move people, to engage them in a resonating and subjective way that other mediums can only hope to achieve. No matter the type, observe audiences as they listen, often with rapturous attention, and it is clear that music grips the heart and touches the soul.

This truth is made manifest in the film "Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love."

N'Dour is a Senegalese griot singer who is said to have a voice that is the soul of Africa, bridging the griot tradition with contemporary pop music.

A griot is defined as a West African poet and praise singer, a wandering musician who is the repository of the oral tradition. N'Dour blends the music of the African griot with the rhythms and sounds of modern music, creating a synergistic sound that is unique and moving.

To watch the audiences — from Senegal to Brussels to Dublin — is to realize that his music moves beyond culture and place. When N'Dour steps to the microphone and begins to sing, his clear voice falling and rising, as if composing a narrative, replete with admonitions and insights and appeals, it becomes evident that what this film captures is a startling original blending of song and story and parable. N'Dour also conveys with his very presence that music has the power to transform and transcend.

In "I Bring What I Love," N'Dour, who has collaborated with Bono, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, makes a calculated decision to cut an album that he hopes will present to the world a more tolerant view of Islam. In 2004, he released "Egypt," a blending of African rhythms and classical Arab orchestration, which he performed internationally, as part of his world tour, to great acclaim. Without reservation, the album was embraced in the West and N'Dour was awarded a Grammy.

To his surprise, and perhaps his chagrin, "Egypt" was rejected in Senegal and thought to be blasphemous.

While the film might have elicited a more in-depth and studied response from N'Dour regarding the Senegalese response, it does demonstrate his commitment to his music and his view that despite barriers, even in his own country, he will continue to create his music and he will continue to bring to worldwide audiences what he loves.

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