In movies, as in most other art forms, the greatest of works often come in the smallest of packages. Such is the case with "The Five Senses," an independent Canadian production that chooses for its subject nothing less profound than a meditation on what it means to be human. Writer/director Jeremy Podeswa has fashioned a work of great poetic form and insight centered around a group of people who share the universal need to find true love and acceptance in a world where wounded and shattered relationships all too often result in magnified loneliness and despair. Like all of us, each of these characters gropes towards the dual goals of intimacy with others and acceptance of oneself that are essential for human happiness. Some succeed, while others fail - just as in life - but none of the characters is left unchanged by the experience.
"The Five Senses," though it has a plot, is more of an emotional mood piece than a narrative-driven drama. Blessed with an outstanding ensemble cast, Podeswa is able to draw us in to the center of his world through the use of sensory imagery and deliberate, methodical pacing. In fact, one of the strongest themes running through the film is its examination of the part our senses play in defining our world and character. Podeswa understands that we have become desensitized to our senses. As a result, he uses this film to reconnect us to that crucial element of our beings. The quiet, hushed tone, the muted autumnal colors, the slowly moving camera, the haunting musical score all combine to create an atmosphere in which the audience can become conscious of every sight and sound that comes our way.
In our effort to establish meaningful intimacy with other human beings, we most typically rely on the sense of touch - yet, this can serve, Podeswa shows us, as much to trap us into a false intimacy as to lead us into one that is genuine and lasting. A number of his characters use sex as a substitute for true closeness, while others make a physical connection on a much deeper level. One of the most moving moments in the film occurs when a gay man - most probably an AIDS patient - breaks down in tears during a massage session, his heart broken because no one has dared to touch him in so long a time. This film acknowledges the vital part that tender physical contact plays in the totality of a person's humanity.
In a similar way, the film explores the beauty of sound, as one of the characters - ironically, an eye doctor, a man dedicated to preserving the organ of one sense - faces the prospect of impending deafness and yearns to create a mental catalogue of all the exquisite sounds of everyday life that he will soon no longer be able to hear and that we so routinely take for granted. Yet, like all the other characters, it is his spiritual emptiness and inability to make a meaningful connection with another human being that bring him his greatest obstacles to happiness. Podeswa also examines the part smell plays in making that vital human connection, as one of the characters - a lonely gay man - revisits his former lovers to take a whiff of their scent in an effort to discover if he can smell "true love."
Yet "The Five Senses" is not merely a movie built on a clever "gimmick." On the contrary, it breathes with the fullness of humanity because each of its many characters emerges as a fully developed, instantly recognizable human being. There are teenagers alienated by their own inability to fit into the accepted norm of society and made to feel guilty by their acts of careless irresponsibility. There are mothers terrified of losing their children, in one case, literally, as her young girl wanders off and disappears and, in another case, figuratively, as her adolescent daughter seems to be slipping away into inexplicable "strangeness." There are adults unable to comprehend a life filled with failed relationships who strike out in desperation for that one last opportunity for happiness, often with the result that they end up further away from that universally desired goal than ever.
One of the most daring aspects of "The Five Senses" is that it does not succumb to the temptation to provide either a "happy" ending or even a conclusive one for all of its characters. The film acknowledges that life is a messy, never ending process of changing fortunes and personal growth and it stays true to that theme all the way to the end.
This brave, haunting and mesmerizing film definitely stands as one of the true movie finds of recent years - a true work of art!