What if you died and nobody came to your funeral? Worse, what if you passed away and nobody even knew?
That’s when you’d want John May on your side.
John’s government job is to track down the next of kin of people who die alone. When he succeeds, the deceased person gets a proper sendoff, surrounded by family and friends.
And when he fails? Well, John never fails the dearly departed. If his research doesn’t turn up any loved ones, John takes their place and makes sure they are provided with a dignified exit.
He does some sleuthing, learns as much he can about the late Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So, writes a lovely eulogy, picks out a casket and a cemetery plot, plans and attends the funeral, and heads to the graveyard to oversee a decent burial. Furthermore, John adds a photo of the deceased to a personal scrapbook at home, and he frequently flips through the pages, lovingly, thoughtfully, almost prayerfully, as if each departed soul within the album had been a best friend.
If you died all alone, John May would quickly become your best friend. Not because he’s obliged to. But because he wants to. Because no matter the reasons you were all alone, even if you were the ultimate jerk, John believes you’re worth it.
Because John believes you were made in the image of God. He never comes right out and says it, but spend 93 minutes with John—the fictional character at the center of Still Life, a sweet and tender British indie film now playing in limited release and available at iTunes, Amazon.com, and VOD—and you’ll know that’s just how he thinks and feels.
Still Life, recently acquired by Tribeca Film for US distribution, premiered at the 2013 Venice Film Festival where it won four awards, including the Orizzonti Award for Best Director (Uberto Pasolini) and the Pasinetti Award for Best Film. It was well received in the UK last year, and is just now making its way to the States.
Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake) plays John, an unassuming (one might even say rather dull) man who works for the local council in South London. Director Pasolini, who also wrote the script, says he based John’s character on real men and women who organize funerals for people who die alone.
“I was struck by the thought of all those lonely graves and empty funeral services,” says Pasolini. “I began to think about loneliness and death and about what it means to be part of a community, and how neighborliness has disappeared for many people.
“What are we saying about the value society places on individual lives? How can so many people be forgotten and die alone? The quality of our society is judged by the value it puts on its weakest members, and who is weaker than the dead? The way we treat the dead is a reflection on how our society treats the living.”
The film opens with John on the job, attending the funeral of one of his “clients.” He and the priest are literally the only ones in the chapel. A recording of a choir singing “Amazing Grace” blares through the speakers, and as they hit the phrase, “I once was lost but now am found,” it dawns on you: That’s the theme of the movie. At least from the perspective of those who died alone.
John works alone, lives alone, eats alone, and essentially goes about his daily routines alone. And the obvious question that runs throughout the film is this: Will John die alone? And if so, will anyone show him the compassion he has shown to so many others—including more than a few undesirables—through the years?
And yet John, while alone, doesn’t seem terribly lonely, at least not in a woe-is-me sort of way. He clearly loves his work, is invested in these dear lost souls, and is energized by the people he meets along the way, even if they turn out to be relatives that want nothing to do with the person who has died. Too much pain, too many burned bridges.
While the film is melancholy and slow-paced (consider the title!), it’s not depressing—a bit surprising given the subject matter and that John is surrounded by death at every turn. But he manages to bring life into these situations. For example, while meticulously investigating the home of a woman who recently died alone, he makes note of some particular items—photos of the woman with her cat, a birthday card from someone named Susie, a necklace.
Back at his office, John grabs a legal pad and begins to write: “We are here to celebrate the life of Jane . . .” and the film segues to a priest reading the eulogy aloud at Jane’s funeral—where John, again, is the lone attendee. “A woman,” intones the vicar, “who enjoyed life for all it could bring . . .” He reads on, and it’s a precious, touching tribute.
Had the film continued in this vein throughout, it would’ve lost any little momentum it might’ve had. But about a third of the way in, things suddenly hit home for John: The man living in the flat right behind him dies alone, and John is put on the case.
John discovers that the man, a bloke named Billy Stoke, was an ornery old alcoholic, and ends up writing these words in Stoke’s case file: “No record of relatives.” “Violent.” “Refused assistance.” But among the few things Stoke has left behind is an old family photo album, which includes pictures of a young girl growing through the years, from infancy until about the age of 12. After that, the pages are empty.
Convinced the girl must be Stoke’s daughter, John sets out to find her, and the ensuing journey makes up the heart of the film. He learns that the girl’s name is Kelly, and when John finally finds her, she’s a 30-something young woman (played by Joanne Froggatt, who won a Golden Globe last weekend for her work as Anna Bates on Downton Abbey).
When Kelly hears of her father’s death, she curtly thanks John and turns away, wanting nothing to do with the matter, or with the funeral. John gently persists, and soon the two lonely souls are drawn to one another. And suddenly, John has a spring in his step. And his once still life comes alive.
And I will leave it at that.
The film ends with a beautiful scene that will tug at your heartstrings. And then, right before the credits roll, something happens that is either quite lovely or exceedingly cheesy, I can’t decide. Some will love it, some won’t. I’m on the fence.
Whatever you make of the conclusion, this much is clear: With so many films these days piling up obscene body counts—from The Hobbit to The Hunger Games, from Captain America to Transformers—it’s nice to see a movie that actually takes the time to stop and respect the dead. To remember them lovingly, compassionately, as those created in the image of God. It is, in many ways, a film about the sanctity of life.
Still Life does not have a rating from the MPAA, but it would likely be PG or PG-13. There is a little bit of rough language, but nothing else that viewers would find offensive. Considering its slow pace and subject matter—a man surrounded by death at every turn—it’s not a good fit for young children. But there’s plenty of conversation fodder here for mid-teens and up, especially when it comes to the value of one’s life.
Mark Moring is a CT editor at large and a writer at Grizzard Communications in Atlanta.