Ellen Burstyn’s crowning achievement in movies might be her multidimensional star turn in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), though strong arguments could be made for her fearless work in The Exorcist (1973) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). Obscured by these famous movies is the offbeat gem Resurrection, in which Burstyn not only incarnates the complex facets of a fully rounded individual, but in which she explores realms beyond normal human understanding. As its title suggests, Resurrection is about a woman who dies for a brief time before returning to life, and upon returning from “the other side,” she gains supernatural healing powers. As Burstyn articulated in her autobiography, she’s been on a lifelong spiritual journey, so in some ways, Resurrection might be her ultimate role. It’s a problematic film that some viewers will find too incredible, and even fans of the picture are likely to quibble about plot points. Nonetheless, most of what happens onscreen in Resurrection is memorable and strange and touching.
Burstyn, who received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress for the picture, stars as Edna, an everywoman who experiences a terrible car accident. Her husband dies in the crash, but Edna rouses despite being legally dead for a period of time. Upon discovering her brush with morality has gifted her with special abilities, Edna gradually detaches from her old life and becomes a faith healer. She also falls in love with Cal (Sam Shepard), a deeply religious man whose beliefs allow him to accept the “miracle” of Edna’s supernatural power. Yet a schism grows in their relationship because Edna refuses to acknowledge God as the author of her destiny, which puts Edna on the road to the film’s powerful final act.
Written by the imaginative Lewis John Carlino and directed by the reliable Daniel Petrie, Resurrection has a bit of a TV-movie feel, but the smallness of the presentation is perfect for the subject matter. By eschewing grandeur, Petrie keeps the focus on the turbulence that paranormal phenomena causes in Edna’s life and the lives of those around her. Seeing Edna do incredible things sparks revelatory reactions, with desperate people seeing Edna as the deliverance they crave, small-minded people seeing her as a personification of everything that frightens them, and spiritual people seeing Edna as proof that forces beyond man guide the universe. Through it all, Edna experiences a litany of surprising emotional changes, some of which are more believable than others, but the stark contrast the filmmakers draw between the person Edna was before her transformation and the person she is at the end of the story makes a powerful statement about human potential.
Burstyn commits wholeheartedly to even the most outlandish scenes, thereby grounding the picture in simple emotional truth. The fine supporting cast, which also includes Roberts Blossom, Jeffrey DeMunn, Richard Farnsworth, Eva Le Gallienne (who received on Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress), and Lois Smith, helps weave a canvas of rural authenticity, with Shepard’s fire-and-brimstone ire providing a sharp counterpoint to Edna’s embrace of the mysterious. Resurrection is far from perfect, but it’s filled with ambiguities that provide fodder for fascinating conversations.