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A Matter of Life and Death film image, man and woman embracing

A Matter of Life and Death

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Michael Powell has a special place in the hearts of British film lovers. Hitchcock went to Hollywood. David Lean was most at home with international epics. But Powell was English through and through, and “Englishness” was one of his favourite subjects, even if much of that came from his Anglophile Hungarian-born writing partner, Emeric Pressburger. Powell’s own English style stands in marked contrast to the prevailing bland realism which characterized the industry around him: he was a florid romantic, with a love for expressionism, for poetry and surrealism.

With Pressburger, during and after World War II, Powell made an unparalleled series of passionate, idiosyncratic, unforgettable British films, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes, I Know Where I’m Going, Black Narcissus and A Canterbury Tale. All of them are wonderful. But the most beloved of all is A Matter of Life and Death.

It began life as a commission from the wartime Ministry of Information, which required a film stressing goodwill between the Brits and their American allies. It ended somewhere else, a transatlantic love story framed by an English airman’s morbid neurological fantasy after his plane comes down in the Channel. Peter Carter (David Niven) washes up on Saunton Sands, where he falls in love with an American nurse (Kim Hunter). Guilty that he has cheated death, Peter dreams that he must plead permission to extend his lifespan before the highest court of all, in Heaven. With all the philosophers and poets in history at his disposal, who will he choose for an advocate?

Powell shoots “reality” in vivid, vibrant Technicolor, and Carter’s celestial “episodes” in black and white. Likewise, the film’s temperament encompasses the old school stiff upper lip and something that conjures its fervid opposite.

Sunday’s Pantheon screening will be preceded by a 15 minute introductory lecture and feature a book club-style discussion afterwards.


Apr 21: Introduced by William Brown, Assistant Professor of Film, University of British Columbia; Honorary Fellow for the School of Arts, University of Roehampton, London


There are more stunning ideas in this one film, concerning a mistake made in heaven about a WWII pilot who should be dead but isn’t, than the whole of British cinema can usually muster in a decade.

Nick James, Sight & Sound

Bursts with tantalizing ideas, surprising connections, suggestive flights of fancy.

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice


Presented by


Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger


David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter

Country of Origin






104 min

Book Tickets

Sunday April 21

11:00 am
Guests/Q&As Hearing Assistance
VIFF Centre - Vancity Theatre
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Tuesday April 23

5:50 pm
Hearing Assistance
VIFF Centre - Vancity Theatre
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Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger


Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger


Jack Cardiff


Reginald Mills

Original Music

Allan Gray

Production Design

Alfred Junge

Also in This Series

A Matter of Life and Death

In this splendid WWII fantasy, RAF pilot Peter (David Niven) cheats death when his plane is downed over the Channel. Washing up on an English beach, he must plead his case for a life extension in the highest court of them all...

VIFF Centre - Vancity Theatre

Daisies + Meshes of the Afternoon

This programme highlights two landmarks in feminist film: Maya Deren's surrealist short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), and Vera Chytilova's subversive new wave farce, Daisies (1966), perhaps the most radical, confrontational film of the era.

VIFF Centre - Vancity Theatre


The consummate director of the silent era, Murnau was schooled in German Expressionism and embraced the fluidity and dynamism of the moving camera. Invited to Hollywood he prefigured film noir with this tale of a married villager seduced by a city vamp.

VIFF Centre - Vancity Theatre

Pather Panchali

Satyajit Ray's first film opened eyes in the West. It's a naturalistic portrait of the childhood of a Brahman child, Apu, growing up in a village far from twentieth century technology in West Bengal.

VIFF Centre - Vancity Theatre

The Night of the Hunter

One of the strangest and most beguiling movies you'll ever see, from a poetic, nightmarish novel by Davis Grubb, a fable about two children fleeing from a psychotic evangelical preacher (Robert Mitchum). Charles Laughton's only film as director.

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The Battle of Algiers

French Colonel Mathieu hunts for Algerian resistance leader Ali la Pointe in Pontecorvo's classic, which draws the battle lines between colonialists and Arab insurrectionists in a pulsating, "fly-on-the-wall" documentary style.

VIFF Centre - Vancity Theatre


Jacques Tati was modernity's clown; technology his banana skin. Here his alter-ego Monsieur Hulot navigates a sterile Paris that seems designed to thwart his every wish.

VIFF Centre - Vancity Theatre