Solitude Abandoned

Italian filmmaker Uberto Pasolini researches the social lives of others by way of fish and chip shops and funeral parlours to reflect upon the life of a man who works for the dead.

Uberto Pasolini first learned about the peculiar profession of English funeral officers when reading an article in The Guardian newspaper. The London- based, Italian filmmaker saw these council employees, tasked to deal with the people in society who die alone – often impoverished and without caring relatives – as reflecting a “sad reality” of modern existence. Yet, frequently, the stories of these solitary loners, gradually revealed through scrupulous research, prove to be compelling in their own idiosyncratic ways.

Pasolini was inspired to take these grains of reality and use them as the cornerstones of his melancholic, yet soothing, second film Still Life. In it, we hear fanciful tales of how a rogue worker at a pie factory defiantly urinated in the pork meat mix as he quit his job, another about a madman who once deep-fried someone’s hand during a heated altercation in a chippie, and poignantly, how a lonely old woman would send herself birthday and Christmas cards, all addressed from her pet cat, with an inky pawprint.

The most startling tale of all, however, is that these anecdotes are not fiction: Pasolini encountered them during his own life. “What I’m concerned with is not the extraordinary character or life, but the extraordinary in the everyday,” Pasolini explains, in a rounded, furrowing accent that has clearly been shaped by four decades of living in England. “I’m interested in how special everyday moments can be. If you’re prepared for discovery in places where we don’t usually expect unique things to happen, then you will see new things, because they happen all the time. But because we’re so busy with our lives, often we just don’t have time to be hit by the unexpected.”

This is something that the main character, Mr John May (Eddie Marsan) – a figure with a little Monsieur Hulot and Mr Bean about him – only learns towards the end of Still Life. His daily cycle as a funeral officer is alarmingly monotone: May wears the exact same drab, greyed uniform each day, and eats the exact same modest dinner each night (a tin of tuna, a slice of toast and a pale green apple). His endeavours to find the relatives of the deceased, using clues found at their home, are reliably repetitive too: no one turns up to the funerals he organises, listens to the music he has thoughtfully chosen, or appreciates the poetic eulogies he has written. That is, until he is fired by his boss (Andrew Buchan) after 22 years of service, in Kafkaesque language:

“Given the current pressure on finances, the council is undertaking a new round of efficiency savings,” he spins. “An opportunity for a new beginning.” With all this surrounding morbidity, it seems as though the afterlife could be that new beginning for May. But, as he completes his final case, May’s life becomes imbued with new zest, curiosity – he refreshes his wardrobe with a new cardigan, opts for a daring hot chocolate over the usual black tea, and even verges on the prospect of having a romantic relationship (in the form of Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt as Kelly Stoke) – as well as risk. Still Life correspondingly transforms its palette from the preliminary shades of gloomy glaucous and dull ash to more saturated, vibrant hues of colour.

“Because life is short, and we only have one, it’s important to use those moments well,” Pasolini elaborates. “We should not be alone. We should explore and confirm connections. Society is not made up of unconnected individuals, despite what Mrs Thatcher said a couple of decades ago.”

The 57-year-old director has always looked for the bizarre in the mundane, and prefers to explore serious, socio-political issues through an unconventional prism. Still Life considers solitude and death, but with a backdrop of surrealism, levity, and black comedy; Machan (Pasolini’s 2008 directorial debut), looked at immigration and the developing world through the real-life tale of the Sri Lankan National Handball Team, which was formed as an elaborate ruse to gain visas for Europe; whereas the Oscar-nominated The Full Monty (1997) (for which Pasolini was a producer) – although not actually a true story – explores how a group of unemployed, working class men turned to stripping, in extremely plausible circumstances.

However, this is far from Pasolini’s own personal experience. Born in Rome, he was one of seven nephews of the celebrated Italian director Luchino Visconti. They didn’t see each other very often, since Visconti was often travelling, but was the late auteur an influence on him? Pasolini comments: “He’s not my favourite director, but I do love his early films in particular. They conveyed his interest in worlds and social situations that were very, different from his own highly privileged background.”

Pasolini left for school at a remote college in south Wales, beginning a lifelong affinity with British sensibilities. Yet, he was still unsure of what he wanted to do, moving to the prestigious London School of Economics, right in the middle of the 1970s punk movement. Pasolini hated the course, but proved talented and rapidly became a precocious young banker, until one day, as he says: “I finally had the bravery or foolishness of dropping out of a brilliant banking career and going to serve tea on a film set.”

He gave up everything to become a runner on the 1984 film The Killing Fields, during the hottest summer on record, and never looked back.

“I use cinema as an opportunity to explore life, rather than just making something,” says Pasolini. “First, Still Life started as an exploration of social reality – I knew nothing about isolation or solitude and poverty – and then, it became a slightly more personal journey because it was unavoidable thinking about my own moments of loneliness. Why don’t I know my neighbours?”

As a result, Pasolini introduced himself to his neighbours and shared a bottle of wine with them. He immersed himself in the research phase, spending time in fish and chip shops and bakeries in the north of England, and shadowing funeral officers in Southwark and Lewisham. Carol Morley’s documentary Dreams of a Life (2011), which investigates the life of a woman found in her London home three years after her death, appears a likely reference point. Pasolini argues: “Society can be judged by the way it treats its vulnerable members – whether it’s the old, the infirm, parentless people, or those that need drug support – and there’s nothing weaker than a dead person who can’t fight for themselves. I called the film Still Life because it’s about a life that apparently isn’t moving. But it is still a life nonetheless.”

“One of the things that our central character doesn’t do is judge other people’s lives. I don’t want the audience to look down on the central character’s life.” However, Marsan’s pitch-perfect performance as May is certainly worthy of assessment. Pasolini divulges: “I wrote the film with a photograph of Eddie Marsan staring at me. Eddie has unbelievable talent and technique, but more than anything else, the generosity of not using his work was an opportunity to show how good he is, but simply to serve the moment.”

Marsan’s brilliant embodiment of his character’s meticulous nature is down to a subtle approach, and it’s no surprise that the actor has collaborated with Mike Leigh in the past. However, this meticulous mindset is augmented by Stefano Falivene’s precise and bold cinematography. The camera depicts a world from John May’s point of view. For Pasolini, Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu was the main influence: “He developed an extremely sophisticated, but apparently very simple film grammar, of static camera shots and medium to low angles. He showed you can deal with important issues in a way that is not at all melodramatic. In a subtle way, with a quiet register.”

“In Georgia, they told me it felt very much like it was a local film. In Russia, the critics told me it was obviously influenced by Dostoevsky and Gogol. In Sri Lanka, they said it was clearly a Buddhist film,” Pasolini says. For him, this common sentiment is why Still Life has won audience and jury awards from Japan to Romania to Venice: “Loneliness, our relationships with other people, and with the dead: it touches people. Not because of its quality, but because it makes people think about their own lives.”

Still Life is released nationwide on 6 February through Artificial Eye.

Peter Yeung