By Kathy Berken
I wish I could tell you what the film “In & Of Itself” is really about (Hulu, January 2021). However, I can tell you it is one of the most transformative films of the century. What you take away from the 90-minute film will depend on your experience.
As I think about the movie, subtitled “Identity is an Illusion”— a compilation of cuts filmed from its off-Broadway run May 2016 to August 2018 — I am reminded of this exchange from Scripture: “‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Matt 16:13-16).
“In & Of Itself,” written by and starring magician Derek DelGaudio, was directed by Muppet master Frank Oz. Yes, it has illusion and storytelling, but saying the film is about magic and stories is like saying the Bible is about God.
Of course it is but it is so much more complex because — and this is the point about the film — the way we explain or imagine something is unique to our own experiences. DelGaudio may perform some illusion, tell some stories and interact with the audience, but if that is all he does then it’s just another show.
When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do they say I am?” they gave different answers, based on their perceptions. Even Peter’s answer, as true as it is — “the Christ, the Son of the living God”— is admittedly one facet of who Jesus really is.
When the film’s executive producer, late-night TV host Stephen Colbert, interviewed DelGaudio and Oz on his show earlier this year, the three began the segment by saying they couldn’t describe the film because they agreed that you just have to experience it for yourself. That said, they went on to talk about identity, illusion and reality.
Who are we really, aside from what others tell us we are? Are we ever truly known or seen? Isn’t that what Jesus’ disciples did when they described him from what they heard others saying, or what they believed? What did Jesus say about himself? Here is verse 20: “Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.”
What is integral to both the film and the Gospel is the notion of “Who are we really?” Who defines us? How do we truly see ourselves? By what criteria do we determine who others — or ourselves — say we are?
In no particular order of significance, here are some quotes from the film, which honestly give nothing away from seeing it: “We are writing each other’s stories.” “If you’re willing to turn your back to the sun, everything else is illuminated.” “It’s all that knowledge that conceals what it really is.” “It’s just how you look at it.” “True identity is that which exists in your own heart and is seen by others.” “I am defined by not just what you see but all the things you’ll never see.”
My take from the film: I know that God is the greatest mystery of my life, and the more I think I know who God is, the less I really know. Same about myself. The more I think I know who I am, the less certain I am because there are still so many layers to uncover.
“In & Of Itself” is on Hulu, which offers a free 14-day trial if you aren’t already a subscriber. The effort to watch is worth it. I’d like to know what you think.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton from 1999-2009.)