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Metaphors and Clichés Aside, Death is Evolving
by Marinell Haegelin

Remember when John Wayne (or whichever actor wore the white Stetson) would shoot the bad guy in the black hat, who would then simply topple to the ground without a hint of blood? And those films where character “A” died, putting character “B” in a hostile environment that had to be overcome to move the story forward to an almost foregone happy ending? This is a genre that, from frivolous to macabre to who-done-it thrillers, covered a lot of ground. Also, the films that used tragic death conveniently: Luchino Visconti’s 1971 Death in Venice (Italian: Morte a Venezia), Roman Polanski’s 1994 Death and the Maiden and William Wyler’s 1939 Wuthering Heights, to name a few.

Metaphors and clichés aside, the one maxim of life is, what is born will die. However, especially in westernized areas of the world, people have had an aversion to (honestly) depicting death and never has this been more apparent than in films. Up to now, up to a point. I have noticed a perceptible shift in films the past years: it seems the concept of aging, dying and death is evolving and some films portray a more objective humane expression of that truth. Let us look at several films I saw at Filmfest Hamburg that approach dying and death objectively.

An appropriate start is Departures (Okuribito), the dark horse that won the 2009 Oscar® for Best Foreign Language film. Director Yôjirô Takita’s frustration at not finding a distributor prompted him to shout at the film’s publicity staff, “Why don’t you put it in for the Academy Awards?” never dreaming it would be nominated, much less win. Departures embraces death with dignity, humor, empathy, melancholy and honesty.

Before Twilight, on the other hand, concentrates on the facticity of life’s journey. Jerzy, a vivacious contemporary, arrives at a home for aging stage and film stars. His lust for life shakes the death out of most, creates an affinity with the young people with whom he comes in contact, and a dog that adopts him. Jerzy calls the dog Mephistopheles, embraces Faust (Goethe\'s play) and propels his fellow thespians, et al, to embark on a soul-fulfilling escapade. Renowned documentary filmmaker Jacek Blawut casts some of Poland’s greatest actors in this, his first narrative film.

A counterbalance to the age angle is One Week, which is from the perspective of a young man who learns, weeks before he is to marry, that he has a fast-moving cancer. What most people would do is succumb immediately to hospital treatment. But, if you are young and feel good, the world can be your oyster, even if for a short time. Ben (Joshua Jackson) flees cross-country on a vintage motorcycle; his loved ones are flummoxed and his encounters vary as his quest metamorphoses into reaching the West Coast and seeing the Pacific Ocean. Truth and honesty prevail and is tied up in an engaging package in this, writer/director Michael McGowan’s second film.

Conversely in Nora’s Will, Nora plans her death with precise pleasure. Her plans are challenged by her ex-husband José, who is not into kosher and ceremony, and might not carry out the details she has painstakingly left behind. He finds a mysterious photograph overlooked under the bed, which leads to memories of the years he and Nora shared. In her debut film, writer/director Mariana Chenillo confronts elements of life head on to reach an unexpected conclusion. This tidy story, even though complicated by incorporating religious beliefs, is imbued with poignancy, nostalgia, and biting humor.

The retrospective New Zealand Delux film Ngati (1987, Barry Barclay director) nicely rounds out this group of films, since its approach encompasses both a death and dying. Ngati is set in a tiny Maori community on the East Cape coastline in 1948. The film parallels twelve-year-old Ropata’s grave illness with the village’s livelihood, an equally concerning, fluctuating situation that unifies the Maori and Pakeha (Anglo) townspeople and their choice of healing, whether with a tohunga or modern medicine. Whereas the power of destiny is illustrated through Australian Greg, who arrives for a visit and learns more about his mother buried in the local cemetery and his enduring legacy.

The thought that lingers long after I have seen a film such as one of the films above is, that our relationship with death goes far beyond the limits of life and is utterly fascinating, complicated and mystifying.