Still Life (2013) does not shout for attention, it whispers. Umberto Pasolini’s film bills a single actor, Eddie Marsan who plays John May. May is a case worker for the council in south London. He is the only employee within the department charged with searching for relatives of those who have died alone and in most cases, destitute.
May is vigorous but thorough in his job. He pushes through the bureaucratic and bleak job pro-forma with a steady dedication. He relentlessly tracks relatives and friends for attendance at memorials, he purchases the coffins of those without preferences, writes eulogies and selects music. Most of the time he is the only witness for the funeral. In short, he provides the last scraps of dignity for otherwise lost and forgotten denizens.
The question does come to the top afterward. Does the man make the job or does the job mold the man? May’s life, perhaps in respect and consequence to these most unfortunates, is spare and minimal. At night he thumbs through family albums containing pictures of all his former clients. Perhaps another question. Is joy at the heart of life or is it the pursuit of happiness?
The conflict comes when government downsizing eliminates his position in favor of a more expedient way to process the indigent. He is given a week to finish up on his last client. A week without pay.
Like good tragedy, the last few moments of the film are some of the most powerful in recent memory. The lack of dialogue keeps the subtle movements of the director’s craft on point and leaves the viewer reflecting on the juxtapositions that exist throughout the film.
If as T.S. Eliot says in the Wasteland, “April is the cruelest month,” then John May is the flower on the grave that reminds us that each life matters, even the still ones.
Available this month on Amazon streaming.