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All eyes on faith-science mystery in sci-fi thriller

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Look into my eyes: Michael Pittand Astrid Berges-Frisbey in I Origins.

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Look into my eyes: Michael Pittand Astrid Berges-Frisbey in I Origins.

The notion that eyes are the window to the soul has been attributed variously to Shakespeare, Cicero and Leonardo da Vinci.

Now the concept resurfaces in the fascinating low-tech sci-fi thriller I Origins. An exploration of where science ends and spirituality picks up, this second feature from writer-director Mike Cahill (Another Earth) is captivating, suspenseful and thought-provoking.

Cahill blends elements of a thriller with a love story in inventive, unconventional ways, ambitiously tackling philosophical arguments and positing a world that feels closer to science fact than science fiction.

The story centres on Ian (Michael Pitt), a New York-based molecular biologist studying the evolution of the eye. He and his brilliant lab partner Karen (Brit Marling) make a seminal discovery with vast implications. With Karen hard at work in the lab, Ian meets and falls madly for the impetuous and exotic Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). They meet at a Halloween party -- she's disguised in black leather and a face mask -- and he tracks her down after she makes a physical overture, then impulsively disappears.

Some in his situation might say that fate -- even divine intervention -- played a part in their coming together, but Ian never would. He is determined to prove that God doesn't exist.

Ian's steadfast belief in science is shaken when he meets a little girl named Salomina (newcomer Kashish) in India with the eyes of his beloved. The young first-time Delhi actress is a wonder, almost hauntingly gifted.

Films that intelligently grapple with big ideas, specifically spiritual beliefs versus science, are sadly few. The most exhilarating moments of I Origins take place in a murky region of inexplicability. Despite a few plot holes, the film works on several levels. Sofi couldn't be more different than Ian. They approach life in distinctly dissimilar ways. Ian is meticulous, problem-solving and drawn to the concrete. Sofi is intuitive and unpredictable, drawn to the intangible and unknowable. Their connection is erotic, emotional and intense.

Ian is particularly drawn to Sofi's dazzling greenish-grey-blue eyes flecked with brown. Within minutes of meeting her at the party, he asks to photograph them for his ocular studies.

Pitt and Berges-Frisbey have a palpable chemistry and their interactions feel exceptionally natural, almost improvised.

The other woman in Ian's life is Karen, a calm, soft-spoken, reasonable scientist, light years away from Sofi's more New Age kind of persona. With her distinctive blend of intelligence and warmth, Marling brings Karen to vivid life. Her favourite part of scientific inquiry comes when she's alone following an important breakthrough, savouring the brief period in which she's the only person aware of an essential discovery. Marling -- who has played a cult leader in The Sound of My Voice, a radical environmentalist in The East, and a troubled woman fascinated by space exploration in Another Earth -- is superbly suited to the role, conveying a down-to-earth wisdom.

Their long years of research together pay off when Karen and Ian make a vital evolutionary discovery.

Cahill's striking visuals leave a searing impression that dovetails intriguingly with the story's metaphysical elements. Scenes in Delhi are particularly indelible, intensified by a subtly soulful performance by Archie Panjabi as Priya, who runs a community centre for orphaned children.

A riveting meditation on faith and science that deftly balances the emotional and cerebral, I Origins' conclusion takes a highly-charged turn that is guaranteed to spark discussion.

 

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 1, 2014 0

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