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At Eternity’s Gate combines stellar acting, bizarre art film visuals, the painter Vincent van Gogh, and some muddled theology to create an interesting meditation on God-given talent.
The film opens on Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) in the final years of his life in southern France, where he carries on a combative friendship with painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). The two men argue over art, and Gauguin’s criticism seems both to frustrate and inspire Van Gogh’s work. Later, the story turns to Van Gogh’s isolation and descent into madness. Some bad language, a request for sexual favors, and violence give the film its PG-13 rating, though the infamous ear-slicing incident is never shown on-screen.
As Van Gogh contemplates the purpose of his art, he brings God into the picture. In one conversation with Gauguin, who believes everything we see is subjective, Van Gogh argues that all nature, from twisted roots to a gorgeous landscape, is endowed with objective, God-given beauty: “When I look at nature, I see more clearly,” he says, adding that nature is “speaking in God’s voice.”
At the same time, Van Gogh adopts an almost pantheistic view: He says God is nature, and in some scenes, the artist seems to glory more in the dirt and trees than in their Creator.
The film’s title derives from Van Gogh’s reason for painting. He sold almost no paintings in his lifetime and was considered an outcast by suspicious peasant neighbors. As he struggled with mental illness, Van Gogh painted more out of an urge to understand his relationship to eternity than to please others.
In one scene at an asylum, a priest visits Van Gogh and asks why he paints “ugly” things that no one appreciates. Van Gogh compares his life to that of Jesus, who went largely unacknowledged on earth until after His death and resurrection: “Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.”