The Other Man (2008): Redeeming the Soul’s Flow

Colleen Szabo
28 min readMar 23, 2023
Tagline: What if everything you believed was a lie? Hmmm. Everything?

The soul is here for its own joy.


This is a symbolic film review, one of my specialties; I published a collection on Amazon. It’s a symbolic interpretation, like my fairy tale interpretations, that won’t make sense unless you watched the film, though apparently sometimes people do read them before viewing the film.

The Other Man is based on a short story by Bernhard Schlink, and it’s got a decent level of obvious symbolism going- enough to warrant my writing a review! Of course I can’t know how much of the film is Richard Eyre’s and Charles Wood’s making (as screenplay writers) and how much is Schlink’s unless I read the story, something I won’t do before finishing this interpretation, as it’s not easily obtainable.

Symbolic stories are often meant to describe personal development, thus I call them transformational. Transformational story, from fairy tale to film, usually focuses on reconnection, reclamation, redemption of our soul-and-spirit connection (Lisa’s red cell phone), and TOM is no exception. TOM is a bit unique in focusing on Peter’s pursuit of the “other side” in the form of his buried and/or rejected masculine potential, rather than just elaborating the romantic masculine-feminine plot line. A film protagonist’s transforming inner world is often depicted in the form of memories, and TOM shifts between the obvious topside story and Peter’s inner experience or “memories” to a possibly confusing degree.

This blurring of realities could be intentional on the part of the filmmakers. In line with my Jungian style interpretation, the important characters (our love triangle, Abigail, and George) constitute aspects of Peter’s inner life. Symbolically, alchemically, there is no difference between Lisa’s, Ralph’s, and Peter’s memories and phone conversations and emails and boat rides and what have you; they are meant to blend together to comprise one man’s inner life experience.

TOM’s symbolic storyline is a bit muddled, with indecipherable references and lost leaders. Some symbolic confusion is due to the accents, Banderas’s Andalucian and Neeson’s tendency to act the grumpy, muttering macho man who slips in and out of Irish inflection. Unintelligible lines are obstructive in the art of interpretation, for there are usually clues in a film’s dialogue.

Folks are surely missing the film’s lovely symbolic level, if IMDb is any indication, where TOM is poorly ranked with 5.5 stars out of 10. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 15% rating; “talky, witless, and tension-free”. I guess the reviewer was expecting more action, since I’m sure the film would be better if Neeson would just punch Banderas in the face (Not.). TOM’s detractors as usual are utterly unaware of the symbolic wisdom entertainment factor. So here is my attempt at untangling this somewhat confusing morass of macho mumbling, mysterious messages, and triangulated memories.

First point; as the title suggests (as well as the promotional poster with Neeson and Banderas facing each other over a chess board), this is a story primarily about two sides to one man. In Jungian terms Ralph is Peter’s shadow, the inner rejected and unknown aspects of his human potential. There is actually another Ralph with pretty dark skin working at Lisa’s company, whom Peter suspects of being Lisa’s lover. This added value Ralph bit is probably a symbolist’s allusion to the shadow (Ralph’s dark skin) concept. Ultimately, when we tie it all up with a ribbon at the end, extra-Ralph would be part of protagonist Peter’s shadow. If you think casting dark skinned people as some white guy’s shadow is racist, remember, shadows are not bad. They are just that which we are not aware of and/or actively expressing. Shadows can hold lots of treasure, and extra-Ralph seems a sensitive, loving fellow.

In reference to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Not-extra-Ralph pronounces his name “rafe”, and apparently that was the norm in England until the 18th C.; the name comes from Old English “rolf” or wolf. Perhaps our writers were hinting at this name origin with Peter’s paranoia about Ralph’s hands, which are pictured reaching out to grasp Lisa in photos. Wolf is one of the voracious animals in symbolism, as carnivores often are- especially carnivores that tend to live in close proximity to humans!

Voracious animals take on the projected human fear of being psychologically consumed, among other things. The conditioned human persona tends to imagine its behaviors as bringing order and control into the world against close but uncontrollable forces, like wolves. And of course the wolf hints at primal, animal instincts in general, those that we cover with our conditioned personalities. Thus, they are usually shadowed in contemporary Euro-Western society.

Ralph is indeed a lone wolf, and a confirmed bachelor. Art by Elena Turtle on DeviantArt

So we could say Peter is frightened by the possibility his inner or outer wife might be snatched away, consumed without warning, by the shadow qualities Peter has suppressed, repressed, or ignored. He is afraid his wife will be attracted to passion, a freewheeling approach to relationship, to sentimentality, to being consumed by intimacy and its surrender, by humility and love of beauty. These qualities are not expressed by Peter in the world, but held by his inner “alter ego” Mr. Hyde character, Ralph.

If this is the case, Peter lives with an inner tension between his stereotypical competitive, upper middle class, honky persona and the passionate lover that lies buried within- as many of us do. As symbolist, I shall morph the “talky, witless” topside story of a man hunting down his wife’s lover, into a rather more complex and meaningful story of reclaiming previously rejected or unknown inner aspects. Such symbolic searching for “the other side” is common in European fairy tale; the prince hunts down Cinderella after she flees the castle, Rapunzel and prince wander the land looking for each other, for example.

The fashion show scene

Peter’s personality isn’t easy to read, since the character’s dominant behaviors are the pursuit thing and his little fits of anger, but there are a few key statements made. In the first restaurant scene, he seems the concerned, loving, stable husband, but Lisa describes him as jeering. Peter assesses the fashion show world and its reaching for beauty as devoid of value. Surely the fashion show as opener sets us up to perceive Peter as the “worldly” type in opposition to the “artistic” type.

Lisa also hints at a deep philosophical point that’s key to personal transformation in the restaurant scene when she says “It’s a choice, not a promise” in reference to love. The way of the artist is archetypally the freewheeling, unconditioned way of the heart and soul, as opposed to the ego and the intellectual mind. It’s a mode of operation that can present fairly constant choices between worldly values, and heart centered values. Riding the artistic fence between two sets of values, choices can regularly clash with promises.

More Rumi. This meme maker sure uses a teeny tiny font for the author’s name

The one hundred percent heart-and-soul centered value system promises nothing in the worldly sense, for it is entirely in the moment, as Lisa and Ralph are described. The word “promise” as couched in the dialogue here (it’s a choice, not a promise) refers to consequences extending into the future. Promises are contracts, implying a linear, time-and-space continuum concept, an investment made with expectation of certain future results.

In contrast, the soul’s “nowness” is a whole different consciousness from the intellectual mind’s linearity. The heart’s nowness does indeed enfold freshly infatuated lovers, altering their consciousness as surely as any narcotic. But in time “the world” and its values will creep back into the relationship and lovers will find themselves on the fence between mind and heart, between clock time and the eternal kairos, arguing about toothpaste caps. They may feel gypped, conned, foolish, or angry in the wake of the heart’s dimming experience of the eternal.

The personality is now in expectation mode, examining the promise, the commitments, of the relationship. The dilemma between committed relationship’s promises (Peter) and the freewheeling soul’s style of loving (Ralph) is duly and truly confronted when we enter into affairs like Lisa’s- been there, done that.

This dichotomy between the worldly one and the soulful one is the film’s core issue here, as it often is in symbolic story. In fact, protagonist Peter is the “lone wolf” in the main cast in regards to carrying this worldly aspect; the main supporting cast members are all soulful folk. The most prominent of symbols in The Other Man is that of shoes, yes? And shoes (and feet) symbolize the individual human soul; funny that English has the pun of “sole”, the point of contact for both foot and shoe as we humans walk the Earth.

Linney and Banderas and their favorite shoes

Soul is where the human spirit’s rubber meets the proverbial earthly road. Soul is here defined as the ethereal, non physical aspect of Creation that uniquely expresses Beingness for humans, for trees, for a song, a shoe, for everything. It’s the vibrational, energetic aspect that underlies all human experience, though we can get conditioned into believing that the time-space continuum with its seemingly solid physicality is more important, or indeed is all that exists.

One of my favorite Jung quotes, applicable to this ethereal soul concept and the film’s focus on creativity, is this; “An artist is a vehicle and molder of the unconscious psychic life of mankind.” Of course no one can avoid participating in the “unconscious psychic life” as Jung puts it here, since on the level of more or less unconscious (in the sense of “unaware of”) soul, we are all of us connected. I assume Jung is remarking here that this creative molding of consciousness is more prominent in the artist’s experience, in the artist’s life.

The person who consciously focuses on creation is likely more tuned to the ethereal, for they are compelled by their inspirations to stand purposefully in the experiential process of manifesting some- thing (physical) out of no- thing (ethereal), if my case is any example. The artist is, therefore, by nature generally more connected to and valuing of the ethereal soul through frequent dives into its realm. Note that I do not use the word ‘artist’ in the hopelessly narrow way my society typically uses it. A housebuilder is an artist in this sense of creating something from nothing: a parent, a baker, a gardener, a potter, an educator. An artist manifests from a state of soul centered love, bringing the eternal into the temporal.

Thus shoe symbolism “fits” the artistic human soul orientation Jung referred to, just as Cinderella’s shoe fits no one but herself, since our feet are our humble naked vehicle. If we were four-footed wolves, our hands would be included in this symbolic foot-and-shoe-category; is that why Peter complains of Ralph’s “pink hands”? Is it linked to his complaints about Ralph’s soft shoes?

Awwww :) A wee soul smelling the roses

The shoe symbol’s “vehicle” aspect (from vehere, “carry”) in alchemical or symbolic terms represents the manner in which we move through our physical experiences, who we are while we do. Did you go through your day with heart and soul, or did you prioritize worldly gain? Were you joyful, or were you resentful, grateful or victimized? Did you stop to smell the proverbial roses, or did your mind keep you always in the past or future, never present? This line of inquiry explores the issues that shoes and feet and other vehicles symbolize, in dreams and elsewhere.

These are the sort of choices Lisa’s words (“it’s a choice, not a promise”) allude to, these are the choices that transform alchemical lead to gold. This vehicular matter of how as opposed to what is referenced in the first email Peter reads; “Dear Lisa, I’d like to get in the car, bus, train, plane, whatever, with you…” This email line calls our attention to not only the shoes as vehicle, but the other modes of transport in the film, of which there are several, beginning with the swift boat on Lake Como that opens the film.

We can compare and contrast that highly featured boat ride with the frequent scenes where Peter is getting in and out of cars- often in the rain! In the first email just quoted, there’s an implied connection in the film between Peter’s often rainy traveling experiences (car, plane, etc.) and the water-supported boat ride, where Lisa playfully flicks water in Ralph’s face. Alter ego Ralph emerges wet from the shower in the Lake Como hotel room and moves barefoot towards Lisa; Peter gets soaked standing in the rain a number of times, including the car thing.

With these three repeated images our writers are probably hinting; “We are describing two (or more) aspects of one person’s experience here!” since they feature water and vehicles. In other words, if Peter is the true protagonist and the other two are inner aspects of Peter, then on some level of his experience, he has the potential to be experiencing water element not as uncomfortable inconvenience, but as transporting in the ecstatic sense: playful, cleansing, even sexy.

Easy to see the similarities, but what’s the crucial difference between the Lake Como boat ride and Peter’s rides? Succinctly put, the Lake Como ride is just for fun, for joy, for the sake of love. As the first quote above by Rumi states, the soul is here for joy, and its presence can be recognized by the very same. Peter’s rides in pursuit of Ralph and his going between home and work are purposeful, utilitarian, using a mode of transport that’s not enhanced and supported by water, but rather hindered by it.

We can also apply the metaphor here that when in a boat we are “on top of” the archetypally feminine water element, signifying mastery of it. Water and earth are the feminine, soulful elements. Such alchemical mastery of water is not dominating; it is a respectful partnership that grows through paying attention to water, enjoying and understanding it, within and without. When Peter criticizes Abigail for crying, he shows his dominating relationship with water; he is in opposition to it. One could stand in the rain with face uplifted in joy as a symbol of elemental understanding of water, but Peter keeps on standing in the rain in the most obviously miserable manner. He’s surely miserable in general after his wife dies, but the filmmakers don’t have to put him in the rain to show it.

Water, the feminine emotional element, is often used to depict soul in its numerous aspects of unity, depth, originality, purity, etc. I discovered that the town Lake Como is named for is probably from Latin “comum”, a derivative of “communis”, “public, general, common”. It’s like the idea of “commune”, a shared property- or shared experience, in this case, if we take all of our characters to be aspects of the one protagonist!

Community is the same as connection, soul’s and water’s (and the feminine archetype’s) unity. Lake Como is of course the password Peter searches for, the key to understanding the mystery of the “other man”. He needs inner, and outer, connection. His transformation depends upon balancing the archetypally masculine ability to separate with the soul’s ability to connect, to share, to commune; to empathy and compassion. In alchemical healing we develop facility to both separate (masculine) and to join (feminine).

Water Element by narm on DeviantArt

The shoe symbolism bears mentioning a few more details, being so prominent. I like the fashion show symbolism of shoes color coordinated with the bright, monochrome dresses, the models on the runway a rainbow in motion. This clothing symbolism is used in one of my favorite films (symbolic, of course) Far Side of the Moon. Most simply, it implies that the personality (symbolized by clothing) is in vibrational (the single colors in a spectrum = particular vibrations) synchrony with the soul (shoes).

There are a few references to Ralph’s shoes. Peter walks into Ralph’s basement (symbol of Peter’s personal unconscious/subconscious) when Ralph is polishing his shoes. Ralph’s polishing the black Gucci loafers, a decorated, soft shoe (thus somewhat feminine) that Peter scorns. However, Peter also refers to these shoes as “sacred” in conversation with Abigail. It’s wise to know that our struggles with shadow elements are indeed holy encounters with soul.

The shoes that haunt the entire film are, of course, Lisa’s red high heels. Red is the color of love, of passion, of desire, as well as of sacrifice- quite appropriate for many a symbolic tale. The color red is often featured thus in symbolic film, such as The Village, Her, and Certified Copy. Ralph relates to Peter that he saw these red shoes before he ever really looked at the woman wearing them- a reference to the manner in which this red-shod woman represents the archetype of soulful love and passion.

The high heels would be significant of masculine air element, which I personally would not connect symbolically with soul. High heels are not soulful, especially when we consider that bare feet are the most soulful of all! High heels are more like spirit, rising up away from earth. Both soul and spirit involve a type of oneness, though. The soul and spirit are impossible to separate, of course, and most folks in my culture seem to relate to them interchangeably, if they relate to them at all.

The feet-and-shoes = soul point is made again upon the lovers’ initial meeting when Lisa claims she makes shoes and Ralph says, “I’m interested in poetry- therefore, feet.” Poetry is, in my culture, the art most widely acknowledged as soulful. The soul’s unadorned beauty is described in the metaphor of Lisa lying naked in the bed showing off her passion-and-love-shoes for the camera.

Finally, Ralph displays his knowledge concerning Lisa’s soulful way of being in the world, her way of being in the world that has gone underground for Peter, when he eulogizes her at the memorial party by describing her drawing of a shoe; “…pencil never leaving the paper…stroking the sole (soul) to rise, like a caress…”. It’s this wavelike, uninterrupted, intuitive, unified, flowing grace of the present moment that is an important quality shared by water, by soul, and by creative acts which stem from them.

Of course Ralph shares this soulful orientation with Lisa; together they represent Peter’s ignored artistic soul, a soul overshadowed by his “surface” personality. He no longer hears or respects this part of experience, just as he has never really listened to his daughter. While Lisa represents soul’s creative powers, Ralph stands in for (among other things) soul’s humble aspect.

Ralph’s menial jobs and his lack of money are paired with an inner experience of freedom and beauty. He is “cosmopolitan” without the money to travel, “brilliant at making things pretty”; he is a soul centered life artist. Ralph explains the secret to this skill; the humbly soulful “reach to the core, the heart of things”, where love and unity reside, where intellectual judgment and ambition cannot thrive, are indeed anathema.

Living that deeper inner experience Ralph claims to know so well, we may not really understand worldly value systems. We don’t stay on conditioned human society’s mundane “surface”, as Ralph accuses Peter of doing. Though Peter deceived Ralph in the email conversations, Ralph experienced only the beauty of them; this is the soulful Fool archetype, which sees the beauty in everything, everything as beautiful. The worldly one is concerned with promises. They’re assessing, comparing, figuring advantage, maintaining surface security, protected, on guard; against being “taken”, ripped off, confused, made to look ridiculous, and so much more.

Ralph’s claim of living close to the heart’s core is symbolically depicted in the scene where he leads Peter to the furnace room. Like the passionate, soulful heart at the core of our physical, emotional, and ethereal being, the furnace radiates warmth throughout the whole building. Ralph’s fire tending skills hint at some sort of mastery of fire element. That goes along with his mastery of water element, of course, for water tempers fire.

I confess I am a bit confused by the tortoise symbolism. It’s the first time earth element is introduced, as far as I can tell, in a film that’s thoroughly saturated with H₂0. For tortoises are very much land animals, and Ralph relates coming upon the tortoise digging in the ground to lay her eggs; “when the old girl was digging…” The “old girl” could refer to the tortoise as wisdom animal, a designation inspired by its wrinkled skin, slow movements, and potential longevity.

It turns out there were three eggs which Ralph absconded to the furnace with; three is the main archetypal sacred number. Keeping them close to the (archetypally masculine) fire, two hatched out and one died. While Ralph relates this story about mother and birth and the famously slow and therefore noncompetitive reptile, Peter raises a hammer in the air, threatening to carry out his angry, defensive wish for Ralph’s demise, and the soundtrack makes it impossible to hear what Banderas mutters with his back turned to us.

Peter entertains one of Ralph’s memories at this juncture- that Peter seems to have Ralph’s memories implies, again, that Ralph’s romantic experiences are really Peter’s inner soul narrative. Inside, Lisa and Ralph have been cavorting beneath the surface of personality for years. Peter here “remembers” Ralph and Lisa embracing in the rain on the sidewalk. I assume this memory stands in generally for an experience of deep inner connection. Acting out his desire to kill, mirroring the furnace’s fire-fury full force, Peter experiences deep inner connection.

Death, a participant in this scene in more ways than one, is the greatest of teachers for mortals, taking us to the core of human values and motivations, terrain Ralph seems to have explored. Ralph, the inner teacher here, turns and places a baby tortoise in Peter’s murderous hand. Holding the tiny creature takes the starch out of Peter’s fiery anger. He looks momentarily perplexed, but then shakes himself out of it, returns the tortoise to Ralph’s hand, and yelling “Sentimental sod!” he mounts the apartment building stairs, back up and out of this confusing shadow experience, a meeting with death and fury.

Can’t find any tortoises; close enough

Since I can’t get a reading on the story’s “mother” references, I’m going to interpret this basement tortoise scene as referring to the human development of judgmental, competitive personality (Peter’s) as a form of protection; protection of the soul. Just as Ralph accuses Peter of living on the surface, so does the shell (surface) of the tortoise protect the soft (archetypally feminine) inside.

Tortoise carries a secure home about on its back, the assumed affect being that it might feel relatively safe wherever it travels. Along with Ralph, Abigail’s and George’s personas could be displaying the Foolish soulful way of wandering shell-less in the world; when confronted with stressful circumstances such as Peter’s angry accusations, they retreat. They haven’t developed a nice strong egoic shell like Peter’s. Or perhaps the point is that they don’t want one!

Though Peter’s got a nice strong shell, the soul “inside” and its deeper experiencing still goes about its business, seeing everything as beautiful, like Ralph and Lisa do. He is indeed sentimental enough for a helpless baby animal to check his fury. Growing up, men in particular may angrily desire to kill “weak” sentimental feelings, for the soul’s boundaryless softness is seemingly the orientation of the loser in hypercompetitive societies. “Loser” is a term we take rather seriously in competitive society, and one Ralph self applies.

However, it is impossible to kill the noncompetitive soul, the core of Self. We can only suppress it. Soul is well symbolized by a man and a woman, archetypal masculine and feminine, embracing, joined, undivided; the rainy streetside memory of Lisa and Ralph interjected into the tortoise scene. The tortoise symbol probably poses for us then the human existential dilemma of embodiment (earth element); our need to develop protective persona-shells. The three tortoises are then our romantic triangle; the dead one is Lisa.

Art by Lorraine Sadler on Etsy

The scene that originates with the email about “I didn’t touch you until…”, where Lisa is cold and doesn’t take her arms out from under the covers until Ralph reaches over and turns out the light, is replayed, so I will give it an interp shot. Arms and hands, which figure prominently in the film’s symbolism, are for reaching, grasping, enfolding and holding, as well as creative manifestation. Lisa, as feminine soul aspect, is cold (a yin quality) because she is disconnected from the warming fire element masculine aspect, in particular from her husband, whose personality is pretty fire element, signified by anger and aggression.

She is the moon, her male lovers suns, sun and moon being one of the most overarching of alchemical symbols. Ralph, as the radiating inner masculine side of the soul, knows what to do about Lisa’s lunar, yin coldness, her drawing into herself, which is archetypally feminine stillness, passivity, incubation. When soul man Ralph sees this feminine behavior, he recognizes it and turns out the light.

The light bit is confusing symbolically, since electricity is fire, and a cold Lisa is in need of fire, so why is it turned out? However, light is also daytime orientation, the “surface” experience. Looking for love, for connection in the daytime “outer” experience doesn’t quite cut it, from the soul’s perspective. What deeply warms Lisa’s heart and soul is Ralph the cosmic fire-tender; an inner connection with her masculine sun, which takes place best in the soul’s darkness, where the feminine moon resides.

It’s a cliché that men often wish to see the body they are making love with, while women want to close their eyes, turn out the light, and experience sexual intimacy without using the sense of sight, relying on touch and sound, whispered sweet nothings. Women are typically more in touch with the feeling of joining within, since feminine, the yin principle, is oriented in the direction of inner experience. The archetypal feminine’s job in sexual intimacy is to connect deeply, below our daytime personalities, a job which can of course be performed by any sex or gender. The archetypal feminine’s ability to intimacy is moon’s magnetism, an inward pull: Come in, come in, come in. I guess men need the light to see where they are going! Haha.

I’m not sure why Ralph leans across Lisa. I guess he has to as it’s her light that’s on. She’s the one who needs to shift her focus away from looking for love in her daytime, artificially lighted experience. Ralph is, after all, our most purely soulful character here, since he does not relate to “the world” much at all, while Lisa is a successful, busy business owner, is married, and has a child, all pursuits which demand outer focus. Her solitary trips to designers’ conventions are at least partly respite from her outer focus. Ralph the humble loser is expert at turning off this daytime, ordinary consciousness orientation.

That he turns out the light could also be significant of the more general fact that he is representing a masculine aspect, and whether it’s light of an earthly sort or of the spiritual sort, light is archetypally masculine, in my symbolic book. The masculine principle is symbolically the ruler, the master, of light itself; the feminine rules the dark. Controlling light for Lisa is then Ralph’s provenance, his job, his side of an inner partnership, similar to his tending of the furnace fire. Lisa’s dark yin role is to magnetize desire, to attract, to absorb, take in, enfold, contain, as a mother contains her child. The feminine, unprotected surface of the moon absorbs the sun’s rays, and this bed scene is all about Lisa “absorbing” Ralph into her arms.

The chess games are a clever symbolic ploy. Chess and other black and white games (such as Go used in The Hedgehog) are a great symbol for the alchemical concept of opposites. Such games are certainly an aspect of the soulful Fool archetype, as all games are. Go, chess, and other games with black and white boards are so useful in portraying dualistic reality because human experience is cocreated in part through playing with opposites.

Masculine and feminine archetypes are the largest polarized categories in the dualistic human psyche, thus the overriding importance of masculine and feminine in our experience. The polarization of energies is manifest in electrical charge; we harness it and call it ‘electricity’. Electricity’s positive-negative interactions underlie the code that allows me to write this review on a computer. Personality itself is largely created through polarities, through making choices between two options, however unconscious we were at the moment of choice. Electronics’ on-off code is found in humans' good or bad judgments. “I am not this, will not act this way, because that is bad.” “ I do this or that because it’s good”- judgments made for conscious or unconscious reasons.

From the alchemical perspective, adult transformation or maturation or enlightenment or what have you is a process of becoming increasingly aware of our choices, of making our unconscious and/or conditioned behaviors and experiences conscious so that we no longer identify with them, no longer label them strictly good or bad. Obviously this pertains to more subtle choices; few of us will be challenged to work with choices like whether eating food is good or bad, for example. You could say that our “moves” (in chess terms) can then become freer, more intelligent, more aimed at that which we truly value, when our energy isn’t squandered maintaining rigid, polarized personas like Peter’s.

That’s Carl Jung there, by the way, as a handsome young fella

We redeem our souls- or our relationships with our departed wives- when we can open our eyes to the truth or validity of both sides in any move, in any game, in any situation. After all, in the dualistic reality humans experience, both sides are needed to make a whole. Winners in the worldly sense (Peter) exist because there are losers (Ralph). When we no longer stomp and scream at our perceived losses, we may witness, even if only for a moment, deliberate malicious deception such as Peter’s as somehow beautiful. Yet Ralph, too, deceived Lisa’s husband.

Once we awaken to our myriad self deceptions about how good or bad we are, to our own blind groping about for love, we won’t judge others for their fumbling in the dark. That’s true humility, not Dickens’s Uriah Heep version. In Jungian terms this moment of understanding and embracing what was previously perceived as polarized and oppositional, requiring defense, is called integration. We don’t have to LOVE it; we have only to relax judgment of it, leave off fighting with it.

So for the reason that it describes, however incompletely, the human game of polarization, the chess game is a good depiction of the game of human life. In the Nordic Eddas the gods play a version of tafl, similar to chess, on a golden chessboard, a symbol for something we all do as spiritual beings walking the physical path. Whether obviously or on the down low, we are all playing this sacred game, with inner chess pieces or aspects; our inner lovers, husbands and wives, daughters and sons.

Council of Olympian Gods Playing Chess. Engraving by John Carwitham (1723–41)

We could say that the manner in which Peter generally treats his daughter is like unto a king’s pawn; she is there for him to push around, and her individual experience has little value. Chess is specifically a game of both protection (the tortoise) and of grasping, capturing (Ralph’s grasping hands, Lisa’s embrace, etc.). Though I could not decipher an (I assume) important word of Banderas’s in the chess bar, he is keenly interested in Peter’s strategy that involves sacrificing the queen; sacrificing his feminine side. Just as Peter sacrifices it, so does Ralph, I assume, capture it at some point in their games- not being educated in chess I missed any subtleties of the board.

Peter getting the bad news

So Ralph and Peter are the primary seeming opposites in the film that need to come together in order that Peter should mature towards a more relaxed and connected life experience, towards the soul’s joy. The name Joy is used when Peter is at work and asks his secretary to “Get me Joy.” She tells him they have two Joys working there, “security Joy and systems Joy”, which one does he want? That’s like asking if he thinks he would be happiest pursuing his personal security, what makes him feel safe, or whether he’d like to consider the whole, develop a broader, more inclusive viewpoint; live life as choice, rather than promise. In the end, he will do the latter.

I assume “systems” refers to systems theory, a very generalized heading for a wholistic approach used in science, in psychology, engineering, and other fields of learning and application. Systems theory considers the ways in which all of the system’s elements interact with and influence each other to cocreate the whole; it looks at shared qualities as well as differences within the system. It’s like the “commune” meaning behind Como. Unlike much of post-Enlightenment science, systems theory prioritizes connectivity, or at the least wisely balances connection and separation, equality and hierarchy, which is actually the truth of Earthly experience.

Peter’s movement towards a more inclusive and connected, more mature and balanced understanding of himself and therefore others isn’t dramatized incrementally, as is usual for humans. We don’t observe a series of both small and large experiential understandings, the countless events that commonly constitute years of human psychospiritual development. Because it’s a film, the series of revelations and subsequent softening of Peter’s personality shell are depicted in a manner both compact and vague, as he learns about Ralph through their chess games and other interactions. At least I did not see Peter changing in his interactions with Ralph; he remains more or less antagonistic to Ralph until the end.

The change presents itself when Peter goes to Ralph’s rescue at Apt. 7; the tarot card VII, The Chariot, is one of movement and change, but the symbolism of numbers varies. With the spiraling staircase at the apartment building the filmmakers might have been referring to the “enlightenment” seventh chakra. A spiral staircase is one of the most common of shots in films, as far as I can tell.

In any case the sharing of Peter’s wealth with Ralph for the celebration of Lisa has symbolic significance, for money represents both personal and transpersonal power. Some measure of this power is being transferred, shifted from Peter’s mundane focus to the heart centered soulful orientation Ralph represents.

Peter’s transformation is therefore only very briefly depicted, mostly at the memorial party he ultimately chooses to attend. There, he sits, now no longer opposite, but beside Ralph. Ralph gives his poetic shoe-drawing eulogy; Peter is at a loss still in regards to such sole-full sentimentality. Asked to speak of his soulful wife, Peter stumbles verbally. Peter says something more than a little odd; “Look at him… Rafe. We have Rafe.” With these fumbling words Peter symbolically shifts the attention of the occupants of his inner and outer world, represented by those around the table, to Ralph the soul man.

It’s a metaphor with quite the same outcome as shifting some of his wealth to Ralph and his profligate, sentimental, celebratory way of being in the world. In this statement Peter makes his soul, and his shadowed feminine side, important. He is moving away from his old mode of ignoring it, of living on the surface, and in doing so he makes the soul important in his relationships. After these words at the memorial Peter displays a new appreciation for sensitive Abigail and the humble, quiet, mournful-eyed George, who reminds one of a trailing basset hound with a three day old beard.

Told you

Peter raises a glass to Ralph and Lisa, and then tags on Abigail; “…and to her daughter, Abigail.” In this moment he equates the three in some sense, the folks he had never understood, but is beginning to appreciate. He reaches over and shakes the basset hound’s hand, making direct eye contact with those dark, sentimental orbs; he is no longer in opposition to this aspect. He is connected with it, rather than in scorn of it, able to appreciate his own inner bassett hound; the loyal, the melancholic self with swaying gait that sniffs and follows the internal path keenly, that sentimentally bays at the feminine moon.

Resting her head on Dad’s shoulder in the final scene

Surely from the topside perspective this mention of Abigail is a pathetic case of too little, too late. It’s a teeny weeny bone (speaking of hounds) that Peter throws his lovely, emotionally tortured daughter, for sure. However, from the symbolic storyline, the important point here is the phrase “her daughter, Abigail”. Just as we see many times Lisa’s computer wallpaper photo of a pubescent or adolescent Abigail, the writers have used the transformational story element, found in fairy tales, of death and renewal described through the characters of the dying mother and the adolescent daughter.

This symbolic element is key in two of the most well known (in America) of European fairy tales, Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The combination of mother and daughter in such stories signifies that an adult woman has realized it’s time to let go of some old conditioning; it’s time for some renewal, for new choices. Something in her life is no longer working for her, and that part is some old personality aspect which must die.

In such instructional tales, the pubescent or young adolescent daughter is really standing in for the mother’s preadult self. Since our conditioning becomes solidified into adult personality aspects and habits of relating during adolescence (Abigail’s photo), that is the developmental stage the mother needs to symbolically and psychologically return to, in order to understand it and effect renewal. Adolescence is the place where folks tend to leave behind their joyful connection with authentic soul in order to adjust to “the world”.

I’m not sure exactly how this symbolic element of dying mother-adolescent daughter would play out in a man’s psyche, but it’s certainly more than a possibility! This symbolic fairy tale element of renewal is also found in the early talk in the restaurant between Peter and Lisa, where Lisa talks about leaving, taking nothing, “bare, start again…”. Her description of leaving is (at least to a symbolist looking for such things) a glaring description of death itself, as in the dead mothers in the fairy tales mentioned. Of course TOM’s topside story does include a terminal disease.

Was the writer thinking about this?

And perhaps Peter’s few words, “We have Rafe” are meant also to point out that, though Lisa as soul placeholder is gone, Rafe is still here as representative of Peter’s soul. The two have merged, integrated. The last little speech Peter makes in the train station similarly pairs the two soulful sides of the triangle-turned-diad; “He was also rather wonderful. And so was she.” Peter’s stepped out of his shell long enough to appreciate his own nakedness and joy in the form of Ralph and Lisa.

TOM has other fun little symbolic references. The red telephone is an inner soul-and-spirit connection device; the red, like the shoes, again being love, passion. Telephone as ethereal manner of connecting with inner experience is a symbol commonly found in dreams and in films, such as The Matrix and The Game. Lisa’s last name is interesting: Carentis. The word in Latin is a form of careo “I lack, I am without, separated from, deprived of”. Careo in contemporary Spanish is, however, a form of the verb carear, “to bring face-to-face”; the image of Ralph and Peter on both sides of a chessboard used for promoting the film. Seems it’s one of those words that actually shifted its meaning to the opposite at some point- that happens. If that’s true, we have a nested meaning here!

In case you didn’t see The Matrix… that’s Trinity

I don’t know which etymology is intended, but both would fit our film. Despite the “witless” appearance TOM presents to those without knowledge of symbolism, it’s actually quite witty; “wit” meaning “to see, to know”. Of course there are countless categories of wit and wisdom, but TOM’s writers and other artists have done a clever job of delivering wit, symbolically encrypted, in regards to the soulful depths of human experience. As a parting shot, Ralph/Rafe is my favorite Banderas character ever, in despite of the greasy bad hairdo. So far. I do like Puss in Boots… and I like that Banderas’s career in voice over is ensured, a wonderful new trajectory for aging heart throbs.