Still Life is the story of John May, a man whose job it is to find the relatives or friends of those who have died alone, and failing that, to arrange for their funeral and burial, and this he does. He searches untiringly for the smallest clue that might lead him to someone who cares about the deceased. When this proves impossible, or when the relative doesn't want to have anything to do with the funeral, John does what he can to provide a fitting funeral. If the deceased had a religious affiliation, he finds the appropriate place of worship for the funeral; he chooses music that the deceased liked based on the things he finds in his home; he writes lovely eulogies; and then he attends the funeral service and burial.
Unfortunately, this is a slow process and the powers-that-be are unhappy with the amount of time and money John spends on these anonymous people who aren't there (so says his boss) and don't care. And nobody cares--except for John. Soon after the movie begins two things happen that transform John's world. First, he gets called to the apartment that is directly across the street from his. In this apartment he finds poverty and squalor, but he also finds the remains of the life that has been lived within view of his own window. Second, his boss informs him that in an attempt to economize, his department is being merged with another, and he is being let go. His boss gives him three days to wrap up this last case, and then he will have, "an opportunity for a new life."
As the movie progresses, we are met on every side by lonely, isolated people--the people who would have eventually ended up in John's purview. We meet them living quiet, seemingly normal lives, but without any real contact with others. They live in quiet suburbs, in senior homes, or on the street. As I watched the movie, I kept hearing Eleanor Rigby in the back of my head--all the lonely people indeed.
Still Life is in many ways a profoundly sad movie, but it is a radiantly beautiful movie. It is full of light, both physical and metaphorical. Some of the scenes seem to glow. The real light, however, comes from John's realization that even these unknown lonely lives have value. He also knows that our bodies are not just leftover packaging to be thrown away, but part of our very selves. And perhaps his knowledge comes from the fact that he is himself one of these lonely, isolated people.
Like John May, this movie is very quiet and understated. Athough the topic of the movie is serious, there is a quiet humor throughout the film. I would highly recommend this film to anyone who likes thoughtful movies. I think it may turn out to be one of my 10 or 15 favorites.
P. S. Trying to discover why this post is getting so many visits, I find that it is linked to the First Things blog. If you are new here, welcome, look around, feeling free to comment.