It’s not often one can have a genuinely spiritual experience watching a movie. But that’s precisely what’s on offer with “The Departure,” Lana Wilson’s quietly galvanizing portrait of life, death and the thin places in between in modern-day Japan.
The documentary’s protagonist, Ittetsu Nemoto, is a former punk-rocker who now counsels people contemplating suicide. A Buddhist monk, he leads groups in exercises meant to approximate how death would feel, whether it’s trashing their most cherished connections and aspirations, or simply lying down with cloths over their faces, to suggest sensory deprivation and nothingness.
Nemoto’s approach is quiet and deeply empathic, which Wilson observes with supreme sensitivity. But what at first seems designed to be a portrait of selfless altruism soon deepens, as it becomes clear that Nemoto has his own demons to confront, including the physical toll his work is taking on his body, psyche, and relationship with his wife and young son.
Wilson, best known for co-directing the 2013 documentary "After Tiller," about late-term abortion, brings the same sense of discretion and respect to this project, which never feels lurid or voyeuristic, even when Nemoto is coping with dramatic life-or-death choices. Exquisitely filmed by Emily Topper, "The Departure" possesses a restrained, lyrical tone in keeping with the contemplative material at its core. Most astutely, Wilson combines that stylistic approach with a disarmingly frank appraisal of her subject's flaws, making Nemoto a sympathetic, poignant figure, rather than an unapproachable paragon. Many movies strive to address what human beings owe to one another by way of compassion and commitment; in fact "The Square," opening Friday, addresses those very themes. But "The Departure" delves into them with real depth and authenticity, giving viewers a bracing glimpse of the rubber of good intentions hitting the road of real life. The upshot, Wilson's film suggests, is both inspiring and chastening. That feels like just the right takeaway from a film that explores life's toughest and most transcendent moments with tenderness, honesty and care.
Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains drinking, smoking and mature thematic material. In Japanese with subtitles. 87 minutes.