Feverish and aching from flu I couldn’t settle to read so took advantage of modern technology and decided to relax in front of the ‘goggle box’. The limitations of free to air television were soon apparent, so I chose a DVD I’d had for a while, but never got around to watching, a film I’ve also wanted to write about because it has what all writers seek: a memorable character, engaging storyline that makes an emotional connection, conflict, and an unforgettable climax and resolution.
I saw Still Life last year with my older sister Cate and was so impressed that I never stopped talking about it – according to daughter MJ – and when JB HiFi had a sale, I received the DVD as a gift.
Now, choosing to watch a movie promoted as: “A council caseworker looks for the relatives of those found dead and alone,” may seem a strange choice when you’re feeling so ill you might be his next case, but that’s what I did – and like the first time I experienced this film, I was profoundly moved by its life-affirming message and deep belief in humanity. Rare messages in a world terrorised by ‘the war on terror’ where refugees and ‘the other’ are demonised. A world where Nihilism often triumphs.
For watchers of British drama, you’ll spot one of the best English character actors this century in Eddie Marsan, who plays the lead, John May with the right amount of melancholic sympathy and detached compassion without becoming maudlin, you’d expect from a bureaucrat trying to instil dignity for those dying alone.
‘Mr May’ has been doing his job for 22 years when we meet him, finding the next of kin of those who died alone, or officiating at the funeral for those without friends or family interested in saying farewell.
The poignant opening scenes of the sole mourner, John May choosing the music, listening to eulogies he’s written about the deceased using information on public record or gleaned from their belongings, and then solemnly sprinkling ashes on carefully selected flower beds is powerful cinematic storytelling. Beautifully scripted and shot by Uberto Pasolini, producer, director and writer of Still Life.
The film took four awards from the 2013 Venice Film Festival, but if you want to read a sour review Village Voice has a very critical, and in my opinion, harsh appraisal whereas FilmSchoolRejects understands “Still Life is a simple, small movie, but it has something big to say about the need for human contact.”
Conflict occurs almost immediately when John May is told he is being made redundant. His meticulous and organised search for relatives and then ‘appropriate’ arrangements for those left alone deemed too expensive and unnecessary in the world of bean counters and government economy drives.
When the downsizing is announced, John manages to gain a reprieve to finish his last case and this quixotic journey transforms his own life as well as others. His spartan dull life slowly changed, his obsessive neatness that borders on OCD challenged and a courageous liberating pattern of breaking the rules begins – all sparked by the realisation that the final “nobody” was Billy Stokes, a neighbour – unknown and friendless living in a flat across the walkway from John’s.
The wonder and talent of cinema is that so much story can be told visually, without words, explanations, exposition… Still Life is one of the finest examples of this I’ve seen in a long time – although I’d never set myself up as an expert on screen! The scenes where John pastes photographs of the deceased into a huge family album speaks volumes – not only about his own aloneness but about giving a family to those who were friendless and isolated.
We writers must always consider our audience and filmmakers have the same brief – for me Uberto Pasolini’s “Still Life” ticks all the boxes. If you can borrow the DVD please watch it and I’d love to hear your opinion – and you don’t have to wait until you have a bout of flu!