In a film culture starved of well-thought-out and well-executed stories, films like Breath of Life will permanently be the definition of grand and ambitious filmmaking.
By Seyi Lasisi
God Calling (2018) was the first Bodunrin Sasore-directed and written film I ever saw, and despite my dim collection of the film, I can still recall fragments of it, particularly the plot-defining moments – the actors’ performances, the reluctant step of the lead characters in taking decisive actions, and the unconventional and mysterious ways of God calling the lead. After 2018, it seemed that Sasore took a creative hiatus, and with no film to his credit during this period, he appears in 2023 with a new offering, Breath of Life, with some of Nollywood’s recurring actors to the film’s credit. Sasore, again, tells another faith-based film, together with former collaborators Ola Cardoso and Holmes O. Awa – with the former credited as the cinematographer and the latter as editor of God Calling. With four films in his filmography, it can arguably be said that Sasore shines bright in writing and directing faith-based Nigerian films.
Breath of Life begins in the future before returning to the past. Through its lengthy flashback, the film, first, devotes attention to the story of young Temi (played by Ademola Adedoyin) – one of the film’s leads. Using voiceovers, the young Temi’s story is peppered with visually bejewelling frames of his life: his years in military service, years under religious tutelage, and his vast knowledge and wealth. Married to the beautiful Bridget (Eku Edewor) and blessed with a daughter, Timi returns to Nigeria with an interest in community service. Deeply pious and committed to the gospel, a tragic event flips the course of his life and he becomes an irreligious recluse. It is in this painful state that Elijah (Chimezie Imo) comes into, as he struggles to establish a cordial relationship with the now-old Timi (Wale Ojo) and build a romantic relationship with Anna (Genoveva Umeh), while he tries to revive the long-dead religious zest in the community.
In my experience of watching faith-based films, characters take polar representations as forces of light or darkness. As the motive is usually to be entertaining and evangelical, there is a lurking tendency to divide its characters into metaphysical concepts: good and evil. Although Sasore’s script embraces these inevitable faith-based sensibilities – the supremacy of God, light overcoming darkness, and characters’ dialogue steeped in Bible scriptures – the film tones it down. This faith-based dichotomy is carefully muted in some areas and at other times, amplified. Acting as the force of evil is Anna’s father, Chief Okonkwo (Sam Dede) with a growing interest in taking over the church, and although passive and distant in his involvement, Timi, Elijah, and Anna push against this seeming representative of evil. Thus, the film covertly reveals its faith-based inclinations, and therein lies the strength of its religious tone. The film slowly and subtly welcomes you to its religious embrace.
Viewers can also appreciate the film’s visual appeal. Cardoso’s cinematography, in unison with the film’s lighting department, captures the beautiful scenery that defines the ancient city of Ibadan and the characters’ interior spaces. This makes for a visually pleasing movie. However, the cinematography is deceptive. It might trick you away from obvious mistakes littered around the film.
One such puzzle is Anna’s switch from being religiously apathetic to an overnight activist of the church. This is difficult to comprehend. Timi and Elijah’s suddenly developed father-to-son connection is also amiss. Elijah’s reliance on his inhaler is off-putting until the film reveals his hidden health challenge. The props, such as the cars and TV set, are disunited with the film’s unarticulated epoch. While the film takes care in framing its shots and building a visual language, the same care isn’t extended to the script and props selection.
Breath of Life eagerly tries to establish Elijah as a church-loving individual committed to the gospel and having the biblical Stephen-the-martyr tendency. These attributes, while arguably present in Elijah, aren’t fully comprehensible. Thus, as the film reaches its climax, with Elijah ready to channel his Stephen-esque disposition, it doesn’t pull out heartfelt emotions. And the reason is simple: Elijah’s character hasn’t earned audiences’ confidence enough to push the narrative it strives to pass across.
But the heart of the movie and the primary mover of its historical and religious tone are the performers. It is hard to make a dent in their acting, which perfectly fondles theatrical and real-life expressions. Adedoyin’s performance, though temporal, commands attention and reflection from the audience. In one of the defining scenes of the movie, Adedoyin’s face grips you into its lethal embrace, and though you want to participate and bear witness to his grief, you wish to alienate yourself from it. For that split second, his countenance isn’t set as a fictitious performance but of a real person in grief. Imo’s transformation from the submissive houseboy to a preacher, and a lover boy, reiterates, with ease, his commitment to the acting craft. Umeh’s sprightly performance recalls her breakout performance in Blood Sisters (2022). The deceptive gentle look and her voice-pumping spree to register her displeasure can, in different contexts, be commendable and faulty. Ojo’s acting is detached from the grief he is expected to exude. His often fast-paced non-verbal movement when he vocalises his frustration and carefully concealed trauma, doesn’t correspond with the emotions he is expressing.
One cannot renounce the grand ambition of the filmmakers involved in the film. Without nitpicking, there exists a semblance of unity from the script to the actors’ performance. However, for certain viewers, the failings cause the efforts to come crumbling. In a film culture starved of well-thought-out and well-executed stories, films like Breath of Life will permanently be the definition of grand and ambitious filmmaking.
(Breath of Life is currently streaming on Prime Video)
Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how they align with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex. Email: email@example.com.