Yes, I realize I’m not reviewing a “traditional” film this week, but the short film “The Passage” is one of the best cinematic works of art open-minded viewers will see all year.
Without giving too much away, “The Passage” centers around a clumsy, disoriented, burrito-loving man named Phil, played by Philip Burgers, who doesn’t utter a word the entire film. On the run from two plump pursuers, Phil stumbles across a variety of multicultural situations — from a Spanish church service to a Haitian family household — and forges connections despite his, and viewers’, utter confusion. No explanations, subtitles or compromises. All immersive, humane, surreal entertainment that viewers will either enjoy or completely detest.
Created by Burgers and director Kitao Sakurai of “The Eric Andre Show” fame, “The Passage” evokes the slapstick silent films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin with hints of the odd, darkly comedic sensibilities of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (watch “Le Havre,” please).
Burgers, channeling his skills as a clown teacher, communicates all the information necessary to invest viewers in the obscure proceedings, giving one of the most emotive, committed performances I’ve seen all year. He effectively conveys a wide range of emotions, from fear and shock to happiness and euphoria. Even so, the character’s offbeat actions, as well as the overall film, will polarize viewers.
Viewers seeking clear-cut answers and mainstream simplicity will become frustrated, but “The Passage” simply doesn’t care one bit.
In fact, Phil’s muteness reflects viewers’ confusion, as he’s continually immersed in situations where he’s the outlier — taking viewers along for an unpredictable, frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious ride.
Indeed, the ambiguity of “The Passage” is an integral part of its brilliance. Phil’s backstory and the reasons behind why he’s being chased don’t matter. What matters, according to the film, is that viewers are as immersed in the moment as Phil is, and therefore are embarking on an experience that defies expectations of modern entertainment.
The cinematography reflects the film’s sense of adventure, utilizing smooth, angelic camera movement, long takes and a confined 4:3 aspect ratio that prevents viewers from seeing beyond what Phil sees, creating a sense of intimacy. This cinematography, along with tactile sound design that gives personality to every object, from a small painting to a Jesus mannequin, contribute to the film’s endlessly rewatchable, compelling nature.
While the overarching themes of “The Passage” are difficult to grasp, one central message involves the importance of cultural acceptance. While Phil is almost always singled out as different culturally and racially, he nonetheless makes friends and forms a sense of unity and community with those around him. He interacts with several cultures over the 22-minute runtime, and this refers to the melting pot of cultures within America. Phil demonstrates the potential for human connection that transcends one’s culture, all while not using language. This message, amid governmentally sanctioned hatred, is highly important in today’s society.
I have several other interpretations of the film (including the everlasting effects of one’s past) that I won’t delve into. I’m not even sure they’re accurate. Viewers should think for themselves.
While winning numerous film festival awards, the film encountered rocky waters when Super Deluxe, the initial company behind the project, was shut down. The fact that TBS of all places saved the film from falling into obscurity is all the more surprising. I yearn for a time when all major television networks would take risks and support experimental entertainment like this. Maybe “The Passage” serves as a small stepping stone toward that time.
Please, please don’t skip “The Passage.” It’s only 22 minutes, and it’s free to watch on YouTube. Take a break from homework, grab some popcorn and bask in the absurdity.