Corpses make sense to morgue technician Rose (Marin Ireland), but people don’t. As a pathologist at a Bronx hospital, the socially awkward Rose is comfortable with death, almost frivolous about it. It’s a requirement of the job, but she’s not like the other technicians: she plunges her hand into the gory gash slicing through a deceased pregnant woman’s abdomen and pulls out what she seeks with brutal, emotionless efficiency.
Despite her ease with death, and as a result of her desire to understand and exercise control over the human body, Rose also has an overwhelming urge to create life. Of course, her approach is odd, unfolding Birth/Rebirth, director-co-writer Laura Moss’ shocking, disturbing, and ultimately fascinating debut.
The single-minded pursuit of her goal leads Rose to form a strange alliance with midwife Celie (Judy Reyes), her fiery and professional counterpart. Gentle, sensitive, and intuitive, Celie has dedicated her career to bringing life into the world, and after personal tragedy, she finds herself in an unconventional relationship with Rose, the two women who bond as they work on it , to achieve an uncanny result.
There’s a cool cruelty to Moss’ modern, medical interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and to his approach to motherhood, motherhood and women’s bodies a decidedly feminist ethos that oscillates uneasily between the clinical and the emotional. Rose’s relationship with her own body is similar to how she sees the cadavers in her lab: merely functional, something that uses, can be extracted from and harvested from. If everyone around her is a specimen of her experiment, so is she.
What brings Celie into Rose’s twisted realm is the sudden death of her daughter, Lila (AJ Lister), from bacterial meningitis. When Lila’s little corpse ends up in Rose’s care, she doesn’t see the end of her life, but an opportunity. Filled with grief, Celie joins Rose’s experiment in bringing Lila back to life using biological material derived from fetal tissue and pregnant women, including Rose herself and an anxious, unsuspecting Emily (Breeda Wool).
“Birth/Rebirth” relies on the queasy, unsettling nature of its ideas to highlight the inherent horror of this story: the blurring of the lines between life and death; the way Rose treats everyone she crosses like a corpse; How easily Celie is able to harm innocent people when her wish seems more important than anything else. Moss doesn’t exploit the style to lead the audience, although Rose’s dark basement hideout has an eerie, high-contrast look, and Lisa Forst’s realistically sticky and crimson special makeup effects are clearly on display. Moss relies on the existential dread of the screenplay, which he co-wrote with Brendan J. O’Brien, and performances by veteran actors Ireland, Reyes and Wool.
This is a prime example of bravura acting, with Ireland portraying Rose as aggressive and stilted at her inability to socialize with others or even facilitate normal social interaction. Reyes expresses Celie’s deep emotion with grace, then shows how that display of empathy can be used as a weapon to a shamefully selfish end. Wool is deeply vulnerable in her desire to have a healthy child – although that’s ultimately what each character in this film wants, despite their different ways of achieving it.
Moss boldly uses Shelley’s classic story – often regarded as the first horror sci-fi novel – to achieve radical feminist goals in Birth/Rebirth, exploring the origins of life with a daring scientific approach and challenging the conception of the spiritual narrative that was developed upon it. By elaborating the complex relationship between life and death in relation to birth and “Frankenstein,” Moss poses a provocative dilemma and reminds us that horror stories have always been women’s stories.
Evaluation: R, for disturbing material and gore, some sexual content, language and nudity
Duration: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Play: General Release