Gregory and Maria Pearse discern the difference between their real life and the "reel life" of their intensely personal movie, "Return to Light." They just don't intend the difference to be great.
In Return to Light (2002), showing at 7 p.m Monday at Rice Media Center, the Pearses - co-directors and co-writers - play the movie's only significant characters, a husband and wife almost indistinguishable from themselves.
Gregory portrays a tormented artist who makes the funds for his movies by working all through the night delivering newspapers. Maria Pearse is his artist wife and soulmate, joining and guiding him in the search for spiritual meaning and purpose.
All true. The one major difference is that in their challenging, idiosyncratic, surreal movie, Maria's character is dead. From beyond she leads him to an understanding that the only death is of the body, and there is no separation of the spirit.
"We knew right away that one of us would have to die in the film," says Maria Pearse.
Maria, a soft-spoken, 43-year-old Russian-born organist who emigrated to the United States and Houston at 15, laughs at the recollection, and that makes her husband smile unexpectedly. Gregory, 39, is intense and serious when talking about their film: His wife's frequent laughter often snaps him into a lighter groove.
At first meeting it's hard to believe this rather ordinary-looking couple is responsible for the extravagant - some would say bizarre or weird - nature of Return to Light.
The movie, which is difficult to follow in the traditional senses of time and place, feels more like a work from one of the Russian filmmakers the couple admires, or a surrealistic piece in the tradition of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali.
The male character is led through a series of experiences that open him to his previous lives as he comes to understand that the human soul is eternal.
"The thesis is there is no division between the two worlds," Maria says. "Visible and invisible, it's all one life. The threads stretch across many lifetimes. Only the forms change, but it has nothing to do with essence."
Many filmmakers are passionate about making movies, but for the Pearses, who met as graduate students at Rice University - he was studying music composition, she studied organ - the passion is driven by a never-completed spiritual quest that consumes their lives. While they do not promote a specific religion, they carry a missionary zeal that is evident in their conversation and film.
"(Return to Light) is our own experience of a personal spiritual quest ," Maria says. "It's an unspoken invitation for the viewer to take up their own spiritual quest ."
That quest is based in the works of German-born philosopher Abd-ru-shin (the pseudonym of Oskar Bernhardt, 1875-1941) and compels them to be on a constant search for knowledge and "the Light," which Maria characterizes as "Nobility, Beauty, Love, Purity, Home and God" all rolled into one.
That conviction has combined with a deep love of movies as art and a drive for personal expression to produce Return to Light.
"When we left Rice, we were left to our own devices," Gregory says. "We were feeling our way around in the dark. We weren't sure what we needed to do in this life.
"Making a film was the furthest thing from our minds. We were just discovering film art at that point. The great works of (Andrei) Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, Luis Bunuel, (Federico) Fellini, (Michelangelo) Antonioni. You just absorb these things over a period of time."
In Return to Light, they have taken the cinema of personal expression to an extreme few filmmakers approach.
"Their life is a giant performance-art piece," says Rice Media Center coordinator Brian Huberman. "They remind us of an earlier time, when artists were infused with the equivalent of religious fervor."
Prior to filmmaking, Gregory had tried to find answers and expression in three-dimensional art, some of which appears in the film.
"What gave rise to all of that art (was) my complete refusal to accept that I could be responsible for my own fate, as I was suffering in life and trying to deal with my failure to become something meaningful. For some reason I couldn't make that connection, that I was responsible.
"I will be the first to admit that I grew up a very spoiled child. I was given every opportunity. And then I was given a great education at (Rice)."
In 1991 the Pearses made their first film, a short, which fostered a desire to do more.
"We just make films from the inner compulsion to make films," says Gregory. "In making them, they reflect our state of being at the time."
The Pearses overcame the filmmaking barriers with digital cameras and computer software - which allowed them to do for a few thousand dollars what would have cost many times that if they had been shooting with film - and by serving as virtually their complete cast and crew.
"All the effects and images were generated on the computer," says Gregory.
Making the film on their own also allowed them to make it specifically as they wanted.
"The Blair Witch Project hardly represents the possibilities inherent in being able to make the film your way, without (investors) looking over your shoulder saying how is my money being used today," Gregory says.
As personal and idiosyncratic as the film is, the Pearses are as eager as any Hollywood producer for it to be seen and understood. And they hope it will lead others on to seek their own answers.
"We want people to arrive in a searching mood," Gregory says. "That's the mood we were in when we were making this film. Seeking and questioning everything."