Friday, October 10, 2014

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: Still Life

In classic, reticent English fashion, “Still Life” does a lot with a little. It's what we call a little gem of a film, where even the colors are subdued, and, much like the Michael Haneke films “The White Ribbon” and “Amour,” a hushed tone doesn't mean a lack of passion.

“Still Life” is the character study of a council worker named John May (Eddie Marsan of “The World's End”), who has the job of finding a person's next of kin after they've passed away. When none can be found or refuse to make an appearance, he attends and oversees the funerals himself, often taking care of such details as writing the eulogy and even choosing the music that's played. He is devoted to his work and investigates each case thoroughly and exhaustively. It's remarkable to see, yet understandable, since he has much in common with the lonely people he devotes his time to: he lives a very solitary life himself, with no friends or family that we see.

May is not only the focus and center, he embodies the film's beliefs, its tone, its quiet stoicism that does what it believes is right and decent and tries to persuade others to do the same. But the outer world does not share his concerns, and he is told that his current case will be his last. It's a fitting finale, seeing how the now-deceased man lived right across from him, and the high personal and professional stakes make May more determined than ever that some friends or family must attend the last funeral he will ever devote himself to.

While sharing a similar tone to the aforementioned Haneke films, “Still Life” could also be seen as a more agnostic companion to the film “Calvary,” wherein Brendan Gleeson played a Catholic priest. Both films serve as a profound, moving meditation on death and our views of and rituals around it, as well as the lack of reverence today's world has for it in the rush for money and cutting costs. In their own ways, both argue that the lack of appreciation has profound consequences for the living, and sooner or later leads to a devaluation of them as well.

May knows he can't stem this tide, but he refuses to allow his efforts to become meaningless. Remarkably, “Still Life” never gives in to pity or maudlin displays. Its message is that of respect and empathy. Yet the movie refuses to turn away from the tragic emptiness that life can bring. May's efforts and the subsequent fruits of his labors unfold in a slow burn that culminates into one of the most touching and beautiful final scenes that I have ever seen on film. It's powerful enough that it actually upsets me that “Still Life” doesn't have its own Wikipedia page. Something this perfectly executed should have more of an audience.

Grade: A+

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