Uberto Pasolini’s “Still Life” is a haunting, original, and moving tribute to human worth and self-sacrificial love at the street level. It is a beautiful, quiet film that packs an emotional and philosophical punch far beyond its weight.
Always on the lookout for a film that is better than the formulaic, ideologically-driven entertainment that is delivered by our media masters, I was pleased when my brother-in-law recommended Still Life—a beautiful and reflective little film for which European directors still manage to find the funding.
Released in 2013 and directed by Uberto Pasolini, the film has won several international awards and is quietly and steadily finding its well-deserved wider audience. Mr. Pasolini’s film centers on the middle-aged John May (Eddie Marsan) who works in the Bona Vacantia office in the Kennington Town Hall in London. “Bona Vacantia” (for those not in the know) is a legal term for property that has no owner.
May’s job is to track down the heirs of people who have died alone without a will and, when failing to do so, to dispose of their belongings. He also takes it upon himself to write a eulogy and arrange and attend the funerals for the suicides and solitary souls.
Working from a broom cupboard office, May is methodical and detail-oriented in his work—even obsessive-compulsive. Living alone in a depressing local government apartment block, the only difference between John May and the lonely people he serves is that he is still alive.
As the story unfolds, May’s bureaucratic bosses find his work time-consuming and expensive, and decide to close his office. May then embarks on a quest to find the relatives of his final case William “Billy” Stoke. Using photographs found in Stoke’s apartment, May eventually tracks down a few friends and family members only to uncover the tragic wreckage of a broken life, broken family, broken career, and broken heart.
I will not spoil the moving and meaningful ending of the film, but suffice it to say that May’s quest to wind up Billy Stoke’s life in a respectful way leads him to Stoke’s daughter played by Joanne Froggatt (Anna from Downton Abbey). She shows interest in John May, and suddenly enlivened by a positive new direction in his life, just as he sets out for their tryst, May is intercepted by a London double-decker bus—is there a sly wink that the bus is called a “New Routemaster”?
Mr. Pasolini’s picture is subtle, observant, textured, and thoughtful. The term “Bona Vacantia” becomes a metaphor for the whole film. Bachelor John May, like the deceased he serves, is property that belongs to no one, and his work in a faceless bureaucracy and life in an anonymous wasteland like London becomes a symbol of modern man abandoned and in search of his soul. One is reminded of T.S. Eliot’s vision of London, echoing Dante:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Director Uberto Pasolini is the nephew of filmmaker Luchino Visconti. After working as an investment banker, he set out to work in the film industry, working with British director David Puttnam. With credits in The Frog Prince and The Mission, he continued to learn his new craft by working his way up through production to eventually direct his own film projects. His films have all been noted for a strong sympathy for ordinary heroes, but Still Life brings that respect for human life to the fore in a powerful way—and all the more powerful for its remarkable understatement.
Beneath the simple story of John May we perceive the intrinsic dignity and worth of each human life. As it turns out, Billy Stokes is neither a success nor a likable person. A low-life ex-con, he has abandoned the women in his life and ignored his only child. Only one step removed from the winos in the street who remember him, Stokes is a sad—even despicable—specimen of humanity, but John May treats him with the same quiet dignity and respect that he brings to all the sad people who are Bona Vacantia—lost souls.
In the final scene Mr. Pasolini takes the courageous step of opening out from John May’s grey and unassuming life to reveal its true and eternal value. Still Life is a haunting, original, and moving tribute to human worth and self-sacrificial love at the street level. I would place it in the same category with the classic Babette’s Feast as a beautiful, quiet film that packs an emotional and philosophical punch far beyond its weight.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.