Thursday, December 19, 2013

156. Italian filmmaker Uberto Pasolini’s English film “Still Life” (2013) (UK/Italy): Quietly amazing and powerful cinema
















It is not often that you come across a film that looks innocuous at its beginning and then develops gradually into a truly uplifting and amazing work of cinema.

Still Life is a tale of a lower-rung British civil servant John May (his name could well have been John Doe in the US or Joe Bloggs in the UK ), unmarried and yet married to his job with a diligence that makes our own attitudes to work in offices (and homes) look a tad unprofessional in comparison.  The name John May sounds as colorless as is the individual that the director and original screenplay writer Uberto Pasolini gets actor Eddie Marsan to play. The incredible character is a lonely chap working in a small office in UK all alone with files all neatly stacked just as neat and orderly is his small desk with a phone.  And Marsan and Pasolini get around to develop such a colorless individual that some unsuspecting viewers of the movie assumed that the film would be as drab as the character and were seen walking out of the film halfway misled by its quiet beginning. And what a lovely film they missed out on!

Marsan is able to slip into the role of the loner, who ensures that all lonely individuals who die in his official jurisdiction get a proper burial after taking great pains to locate any possible kith and kin to attend the funeral, by either calling up people on the phone or ever visiting addresses he finds in the deceased’s residence. (Marsan had earlier played minor but important roles in Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York,   Iñárritu's 21 Grams and Malick’s The New World.). Marsan, who never smiles in the film, does smile once in the film and what an occasion that is!

Eddie Marsan as John May: Discovering color in "colorless" lives

When May returns to his apartment from work, the viewer is presented a neat and orderly place with the bare essentials, and one even gets to see him eating a meager meal of toast and canned fish. And we also learn that he has been repeating this for the past 20 odd years, and believe it or not, enjoying both his work and his spartan meals.

However, the director Pasolini leaves a crumb trail for the perceptive viewers.That trail, which looks innocuous, is only building up to something unusual, as intelligent viewers would expect. And that Pasolini does deliver at the end of the film, and it's a finale that would make you revisit the earlier scenes with your mind’s eye afresh and enjoy it all over again.

The existential query of a diligent bureaucrat

Who is Pasolini? He is no relation of the famous filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.  Interestingly, he is a descendant of famous Italian  director Luchino Visconti and is a real life Count, if Wikipedia, is to be believed, and he has worked his way up the movie ladder after being the third Assistant Director for Rolland Joffe’s  The Mission (1986), the producer of The Full Monty (1997) and director of Machan (2008), his debut film that picked up a few minor awards worldwide.

Pasolini in Still Life makes visual statements that border on the comical but is never funny in the conventional sense of fun. These statements are thought provoking and real.  Early in the film, the viewer sees empty churches of various Christian denominations where the priest solemnly conducts a brief funeral service and even reads out a few words of praise about the deceased. We subsequently learn that those words spoken by the priest are actually provided by May after painstakingly going through the deceased’s living quarters like a detective and speaking to people who knew the person when he or she was alive.  Mr May is often the only individual present at each of these funerals.  But May ensures that the dead do get a fitting funeral at the cost of the town's exchequer.

The person sitting behind me in the movie hall was heard commenting: “Look at the empty churches,” mistakenly assuming the visual commentary of the director was on religion. But Still Life is not a film about religion but about old age and the lack of friends and family in the evening of our lives. Even when John May contacts the deceased's  relatives and friends they rarely bother to attend the funeral. It is a film that looks at relationships both in life and upon death. It is a film about the uncertainty of our jobs, of being served the pink slip even when you are the ideal worker. It is a film that reminds you that you cannot take tomorrow for granted.

A glimmer of color in the life of John May

Still Life is also a film about essentially good people who remain unmarried and without friends and yet ought to be be be considered as persons who add value to society . Director Pasolini has proven one fact: you can make great cinema if you have a great script with a positive tale and a wonderful performance by an actor such as Eddie Marsan. And Pasolini has a talented composer of music to make the movie even more delectable, his wife Rachel Portman, who had earlier regaled our ears while watching Swedish film director Lasse Halstrom’s two notable works Chocolat (2000) and The Cider House Rules (1999). The power of Ms Portman’s music in Still Life keeps pace with the development of the film’s story and, if the viewer pays attention to the subtle progression in the music, one can anticipate an extraordinary end. The film’s end and the final chords of Ms Portman’s music are truly memorable.

Now Still Life could appear to be a very simple film to many viewers but is it? Still Life captures visual details that can be considered humorous, sofa chairs propped up by books (shown twice in the film), what the elderly consider a great meal on two occasions in the film is toast and canned fish, and when a young man in the mortuary is searching for a four letter world combining death and animal, John May is quick with the correct answer “dodo.”  Visuals in the film are brilliant and evocative: closed curtains of apartment buildings so that no one knows what is happening in another neighbor’s home,  old people looking out of balconies day after day in a vacant manner, streets that seem to empty without children or young couples. It is indeed a Still Life that Pasolini picks to project as a slice of modern England. It is a life where people don’t care about the others. It is a life where officials are quick to spot jobs that can be logically considered redundant in modern society to save money, oblivious of how well someone is executing that particular job, and of the larger value of the job that makes an otherwise drab life colorful, even if the job deals with death of many unsung individuals who fade out without a song. It is a tale that reinforces the fact that the most unimpressive persons can change lives of others if they care to do so–a subject that British director Stephen Frears tried to grapple with limited success in Hero (1992) with Dustin Hoffman playing the lead. It is a British film to the core as it looks at its staid bureaucracy, but with a difference, and it is an European film because Pasolini injects a typical European way to dissect the British subjects, with love and a twinkle in the eye. It has propped up the dwindling British cinema recalling the finer examples of the late Joseph Losey's cinema.

A touch of  "Pier Paolo" in Uberto Pasolini's cinema 

Pasolini’s Still Life is a remarkable film bolstered by an amazing screenplay, astute direction, credible acting and appropriate music. It is the finest film of 2013 that entertains and uplifts the mind of the viewer and it is great to know that there is yet another Pasolini in the world of cinema that matters! It is also a film that shows a director can grow in expertise from film to film as in the case of the Polish maestro Kieslowski who bloomed towards the end of his career. However, it is essential that the viewer watches the film right up to the end to grasp and relish the film’s quiet strength. It was one of the few films that received a standing ovation after the film ended from the knowledgeable audience at the recently concluded International Film Festival of Kerala. Uberto Pasolini had indeed made an impact with those who stayed to watch the film right up to the end.

P.S. Still Life is the best film of 2013 for this critic. It won several minor awards at the 2013 Venice film festival and the award for the best film at the Reykjavik film festival. Still Life won the Black Pearl award (the highest award) at the Abu Dhabi film festival's New Horizons section for "its humanity, empathy, and grace in treating grief, solitude, and death." The citation went on to add  "The film lured us with its artistic sensibility, subtleness, intelligence, humor, and its unique cinematic language." Mr Marsan won the Best British Actor award at the 2014 Edinburgh International film festival. Still Life won the Grand Prix and the Best Actor award at the rapidly emerging 2014 VOICES film festival at Vologda, Russia.  The film, The Mission, in which Mr Pasolini  served as the Third Assistant Director was reviewed earlier on this blog.

P.P.S. The author was delighted to receive a personal "thank you" email from the director of the film Still Life, just weeks after the above review was posted on the internet. The author had neither met nor contacted Mr Pasolini prior to receiving his email.



16 comments :

dixon davis said...

"Still Life" was unexpectedly delicious.....saw it in iffk...
A film which comes along with you when you leave the cinema hall.....!!

David Knapp said...

Brilliant. Rare. One of those extremely deep and touching films that transcends mere entertainment and ends up re-invigoratating the human soul. A glimpse of the truly human-sacred beyond words, thought or even emotion. Anyone who revels in unpretentiousness or pines for more signs of 'humanity' and 'community' beyond the dregs of egoism, prescriptiveness, indifference, and the cluttering of compulsive consumerism, will love this film. A small quiet unassuming almost perfectly paced film that cuts through so much B.S. by it's unpretentiousness ability to portray the paradoxical human-life sphere in a polyconscious manner rarely experienced in contemporary cinema.

Jugu Abraham said...

David, I am glad you liked the movie. I am surprised so few are talking about this lovely film or have made an effort to view it. Even BBC's program "Talking Movies" has not highlighted this British film thus far, not that it is a quality program.

mal neil said...

that's an amazing and thought provoking review. I can't wait to see it (its got a run here in Melbourne starting next week)

Jugu Abraham said...

Wish you will view the movie until the end. I have seen folks walking out midway. Director Michael (Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine) Moore considers this movie to be top notch and has invited it to his Traverse City Film festival in the US. The film has otherwise yet to be widely seen or make waves.

Jane said...

Just seen Still Life, this is my first on line comment but had to say what a great film, excellent work. Well done and thank you, I was drawn into John's life and although the pace was slow it was exactly what was needed to make the film work. No one walked out of the cinema either and I find it hard to believe that anyone would.

Jugu Abraham said...

Jane, the folks I spotted walking out were film festival delegates, who were possibly watching 3-5 feature films a day. You are right when you state that a person who is watching one movie a day is not likely to walk out on this one.

Anita said...

What an excellent review! You've made my task of presenting this film to my film group much easier. I have yet to see it as it's not opening in Sydney until Thursday, but I it's well to attend the screening armed with some knowledge; that is, in the case where a presentation is to follow.
I'm looking forward to this so much that I intend watching during its first session. Eddie Marsan is a fine actor IMO. I enjoyed his turn in "Happy-Go-lucky and I'm sure that I won't be disappointed.

Jugu Abraham said...

Thanks, Anita. The movie seems to be well received in Australia from the comments on my review. Wonder why few are talking about it elsewhere.

Anita said...

The film starts in Sydney today and my husband and I intend seeing it on the weekend. I really hope that I haven't over-hyped it to myself in the meantime, though I don't think it's that kind of film

Lisavieta Andrade said...

Still Life is beautiful, delicate, sweet, and hits the audience with an undeniable truth that we might often try to avoid.
Marsan captures the essence of his character, and I agree that the scene where he (gently) smiles is one of the highlights of the movie.
I've seen Mr Marsan in 2013 Filth (and i found his performance notable, despite the movie didn't impress me much).
Visuals and music, along with Mr Marsan's performance, made me leave the cinemas with the sensation that I've just read a sad love letter that had been left underneath my door...

Conny said...

Saw the film last night. It is a gem. It still echoes in my soul.

One of the best reviews I read. Thank you.

Kim A said...

Hello, it's Feb 2015 and this film seems to have been recently re-released in the US. Is it because Joanna Froggatt performance in Downton Abbey was just awarded by the Screen Actor's Guild and the Golden Globes? Thank you for appreciating (caring for) this beautiful film. You've added to my enjoyment of it. In contrast, I was sorely disappointed at The New York Times Steven Holden's negative review. Perhaps it is not a sunny enough film for most Americans. Perhaps we are so practical, like the employer in the film, that imagination fails us. The end of the movie did come as a bit of a shock to me. My initial reaction was to think the film was spoiled, but as I followed it, I found it opened me up to a new set of possibilities that deepened my experience in a way I hadn't expected. I want to live in a world that values people and caring as John May's character does. Still Life is one of the best and most unusual films I've seen. I look forward to discovering more films you recommended.

Jugu Abraham said...

Thank you, Kim. I am convinced it was the best film of 2013--I note it is getting released/re-released in UK and USA in 2015.

Manuel Gomes said...

Subtile, sensitive, lovely. While at the same time lurid and scary. Loved this quite little movie. Thank you for calling our attention to it and for an excellent review. Manuel, Alcochete - Portugal

Jugu Abraham said...

Thanks, Manuel.

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