Indeed, “bearing witness” is the motif that animates the entire film. During the pie scene, C’s ghost is visible in the background of the shot, motionlessly watching. His presence—unobtrusive but constant—mirrors our own as the audience. Lowery’s camera acts like a second ghost throughout the film, gliding through the house and possessing its own personality. (A telling moment early on has the camera contemplating the starry blackness of space before the sound of a slamming door snaps its attention back down to earth level.) With its lengthy shots and its freewheeling portrayal of the passage of time, the film invites the question “Why am I seeing all this?”—and the answer that eventually suggests itself is what makes A Ghost Story the best film of 2017 thus far.
For such a succinct film, A Ghost Story depicts a kaleidoscope of human experience in its 90-minute running time. This is not just a story of bereavement or yearning. Mara’s character leaves the picture about halfway through, and the groups of people who pass through the house after her have their own stories. The ghost observes them all—and so do we:
We see a single mother and her two children build a cozy home together. Their scenes are entirely in Spanish without subtitles, but Lowery’s visual storytelling is so crisp and assured that it makes no difference. (It helps that the English dialogue, too, tends to take a back seat to the visuals elsewhere in the film.) The family’s love for one another and the difficulties the mother faces in holding everything together are palpable.
We see the ghost of another person in the house next door to C’s. She is haunting this home as she awaits somebody’s return. When asked whom she is waiting for, she can only reply, somewhat heartbreakingly, “I don’t remember.”
We see a tipsy, self-satisfied philosopher at a house party, holding forth about his ideas concerning the meaning of existence. It’s the only time in the film where a character is permitted to expound at length on Big Questions, but his monologue is glib and his conclusions hollow. It is only human to presume that there are exactly as many things in heaven and Earth as are dreamt of in our philosophy, though the ghost has no patience for such pontificating (he interrupts the pseudo-intellectual’s speech by causing a light bulb to flare and pop).
These and other stories flit briefly across the screen, lingering for only a scene or two before passing on. They bring to mind Psalm 144: “[People] are like a breath; their days are like a fleeting shadow.” Far from seeming inconsequential, though, these vignettes have the cumulative effect of stoking the audience’s wonder at the phenomenon of humanity’s persistence down through the years. Individually, people are small and limited (“Lord, what are human beings that you care for them?” the psalmist asks). So why does Lowery’s little “home movie” feel so large and full?
Tarkovsky offers a clue. He writes, “[Time] becomes tangible when you sense something significant, truthful, going on beyond the events on the screen; when you realize, quite consciously, that what you see in the frame … is a pointer to something stretching out beyond the frame and to infinity; a pointer to life.” In other words, the simple act of paying close attention reveals complexities behind even the commonplace. Faithfully witnessing something can transform it and make it more than the thing itself.