Still Life (2013)

Those who are called upon to conduct funerals may very occasionally find themselves at a graveside or crematorium with only an undertaker present. Sad though such times are, in my experience they are always conducted with solemnity and with respect for the dead. Uberto Pasolini, director of The Full Monty, takes a thoughtful look at this subject in his 2013 film, Still Life, starring Eddie Marsan (The Thief, his Wife and the Canoe). Marsan plays John May, a serious and compassionate man, who works for a London borough and is charged with tracking down any remaining relatives of those who die alone in the area.  May, himself a lonely man, has done this job with the upmost thoroughness for many years, becoming quite a shrewd detective in finding estranged relatives or previous work colleagues, who either should be informed or may wish to attend the funeral. For May this is a painstaking process that can take many weeks of investigation; indeed, the mortuary attendant complains that he is running out of space to store bodies and ‘come the summer they will be sharing bunks’!

We see that May is meticulous in everything he does, whether it’s his forensic investigations, his ultra-tidy desk, or his fastidious table-laying for his meagre dinners. May is quite used to finding relatives who just don’t want to know, leaving him the job of dealing with all arrangements. Being the man he is, May attends as the only mourner at the cemetery or crematorium, showing his own respect for a life now passed. Such regard leads him where possible to write a eulogy, based on any information he has gleaned from the deceased’s home, which he then passes to the minister to read. The picture we get is of a quiet man from another age, out of step with today’s world and with precious few connections to its values. This makes his job seem very expensive to his manager, who can’t understand why May spends so much time on those whom no one remembers. A drive for efficiency savings results in the imminent amalgamation of offices, meaning that John May will be let go. His current case will be his last, so he now needs to work quickly if the deceased is to be shown the respect and dignity, which he believes every human being should be shown. His quest leads him to the north of England where he finds for himself a genuine connection and a sense of hope for the future. 

This is no blockbuster – there are no car chases, no explosions or CGI effects to wow an audience and therefore it may have slipped under the radar of many film lovers, although it won Pasolini best director at the Venice Film Festival in 2013. This is a poignant film, with a most moving ending, which speaks of loss, compassion and unresolved partings. It has left me with much food for thought. Are funerals simply for the living, or are they for the dead as well? How important is it that someone remembers the dead, even scoundrels? How our society remembers those for whom no one cares says a lot about us and our values. One thing is for sure: God remembers the dead.