Abu Dhabi Film Festival Review: Still Life (2013)

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Cast: , ,
Director: Uberto Pasolini
Country: UK | Italy
Genre: Comedy | Drama


Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit abudhabifilmfestival.ae and follow the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on Twitter at @AbuDhabiFF.

A film that remains far less feted than it deserves to be, Carol Morley’s incredible documentary Dreams of a Life uncovered, via its investigation of the life of a woman found in her London home three years after her death, a harrowing image of isolation amidst civilisation, of the loneliness of being lost among the crowd. Would that we were one in a million, as the old adage goes; being but one among seven thousand times that can make one feel both surrounded and subsumed. That’s the concern, similarly, of Uberto Pasolini’s Still Life, an enormously affecting and steadfastly unsympathetic evocation of loneliness in the modern world, a stark reminder that sometimes the best we can hope for in life is having someone care when it ends.

 …of Uberto Pasolini’s Still Life, an enormously affecting and steadfastly unsympathetic evocation of loneliness in the modern world, a stark reminder that sometimes the best we can hope for in life is having someone care when it ends.

The almost unbearable sadness that accompanies a viewing of Morley’s movie must be what John May feels every day of his life. A London council worker tasked with tracking down the next of kin of citizens found to have died alone, he’s often the only mourner at their eventual funerals, his carefully composed eulogies carved from personal effects the only trace left in the world of these people. Here is a man who has spent twenty-two years face-to-face with the terrifying apathy of mankind, the sole figure keeping alive the memories of hundreds of humans essentially stood on the brink of extinction from history, and undoubtedly headed there himself. To embody such essential awareness without losing all warmth is a task only befitting the best of actors.

Still-Life-2013Lucky that Pasolini should land himself Eddie Marsan, then, the English character actor whose supporting or secondary roles—running the gamut from aggressive to adorable—have long elevated the ordinary and rescued the rote. Still Life, criminally, is somehow only his first leading role, the first time he’s come to carry a film by design rather than by default. He does so beautifully: however impressive and affective Pasolini’s script, however attractively his direction frames it, it’s Marsan who makes it so moving. He is a master of minutiae, everything about his everyman face—the worried eyes; the furrowed brow; those jowls, like a sunken smile—bears the brunt of the film’s emotional expressivity, exuding feeling by its resolute refusal to do so.

Not to suggest, of course, that’s it’s ever a cold movie: like its star, Still Life projects warmth from a place of disaffection; its appeal, indeed, is in retaining some sense of humanity in the face of the world’s prevailing absence thereof. Pasolini expresses this best in his unlikely humour: the little fussbudget moments that Marsan’s mannerisms propel so well; the absurd little details of life; the bizarre things other people seem to find appropriate to say. It’s a wit as dry as they come, stepping back from a scene and letting its amusing little aspects speak for themselves. Cold and uncaring a place as the world may be, even at the best of times, it’s never too far to go to find something to laugh at.

 It’s admirable in the extreme how well Pasolini skirts the sentimentality so many would opt to afford this tale. There’s a strangely fitting sensibility that emerges from the convergence of his distinctly European aesthetic tendencies and the unabashed Englishness of the story he tells.

It’s admirable in the extreme how well Pasolini skirts the sentimentality so many would opt to afford this tale. There’s a strangely fitting sensibility that emerges from the convergence of his distinctly European aesthetic tendencies and the unabashed Englishness of the story he tells. What might easily seem a condescending ennobling of this workaday soul emerges only an honest evaluation of his life and all it represents. What sweetness is tasted is only that inherent in life; what brooding bleakness is found, likewise. Not the macabre exercise in misery porn nor the quirky black comedy effort other storytellers would seek to derive, Still Life is a movie made most remarkable by the unyielding intimacy of its relationship to reality. As it closes, Pasolini playfully gesturing toward the respective ends each of those other films might take, so too does an extraordinary study of an ordinary human, and with him all of us.

[notification type=”star”]87/100 ~ GREAT. Not the macabre exercise in misery porn nor the quirky black comedy effort other storytellers would seek to derive, Still Life is a movie made most remarkable by the unyielding intimacy of its relationship to reality.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.