5. Umberto D. (Vittorio de Sica, 1952, Italy)
Set amidst the social upheaval of post-war Italy, Umberto D. tells the story of an old man facing eviction from his home of twenty years. Struggling to make ends meet, he takes pleasure in the small joy that comes from the bond that he shares with his doting dog, Flike.
Although considered an important contribution to the neo-realist mileau, Umberto D. feels somewhat ‘lighter’ than De Sica’s preceding masterpiece, The Bicycle Thieves. While the film demonstrates many of the elements you would expect to find within the genre of Italian neo-realism, including the employment of nonprofessional actors, location shooting and principal (and political) focus on the working-class, it also conveys a particular sense of internal consciousness that branches away from neo-realist boundaries, and yet deeper than the alternative assignation of populist comedy.
In other words, the film offers up a type of existential experience that is presented within works like Fellini’s- through a poetic approach to the ‘uneventful-ness’ of everyday events and, by extension, the very concept of ageing- but doesn’t quite venture into the abstract.
Nevertheless, it is exactly the primacy of the mundane (a film about an old man and his dog) that constitutes its profundity. The film also represents a historical passage of time, from the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, to a period of modernization that threatens to leave an ageing man like Umberto behind.
As such, Flike is the only source of familiarity and comfort for Umberto; when the old man temporarily loses his furry companion, he returns to an apartment that is being stripped bare (an attempt by the landlady to force him out), which is a possible metaphor for the emptiness he feels when Flike is not around. Even after having befriended a young maid (Maria Pia Casilio) at the apartment, Umberto feels increasingly alone and destitute.
Once evicted, he attempts to commit suicide on a railway track with Flike at his side; however, the dog wriggles free and saves them both from premature death. It is possible to suggest that Flike is a figurative extension of Umberto himself: when, at the end of the film, the two are captured walking into the distance of a lingering long shot, it becomes apparent that the pair must face their remaining future together.
4. Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977, USA)
“You think they killed us? Do you think they murdered us? You think we’re dead? …Or do you think we’re just losing our sense of humour? [Laughter from audience]” Myrtle Gordon is an ageing actress, struggling with the societal pressure of growing old against the scrutiny of the public eye, in Cassavetes’ Opening Night.
The film demonstrates another collectively constructed production by the oft-regarded ‘pioneer of American independent cinema’ and his close network of family and friends. Playing the lead straight out of the immensely provocative A Woman Under the Influence, Gena Rowlands delivers another captivating performance that communicates intensively the devastating effects of a cultural demand for ever-lasting youth that seems to apply more to the ageing woman than the ‘maturing’ man.
While Myrtle is more middle-aged than ‘old-aged’, Opening Night is nonetheless significant to the discourse of ageing within film, as it (perhaps inadvertently) uncovers a gender bias that lingers implicitly within society: a woman’s worth measured in terms of her adherence to conventional ‘beauty’, where she is often lesser accepted, or indeed, respected (especially in comparison to her male ‘silver-fox’ counter-parts), the older she gets.
Caught between the sliding walls of the on-screen stage set, Cassavetes constructs time in a way that is constantly changing; long, lingering takes observe the ephemeral movement of characters flitting between one scene to the next- from one stage door to another- while the viewer is provoked into wondering what this misplacement of time might mean.
“I seem to have lost the reality of the reality” Myrtle explains to her disgruntled theatre colleagues- each unable to comprehend why the actress is so reluctant to play the ageing character that they have forced upon her to perform; ‘this middle-aged broad is passing her peak, after all’, they might as well say.
Alongside the perplexing prospect of getting old, Myrtle is also suffering from the shock of witnessing a young, female fan- not dissimilar to the actress in looks- get killed in a car accident, moments after meeting her. As a consequence, she begins to hallucinate, and at one point is attacked by the phantasm of the deceased young fan; a fight, it could be interpreted, between an older Myrtle and her younger self, or a subconscious battle between the actress and her own ego, which has been increasingly undermined (her co-star (played by John Cassavetes), with whom it is implied she was once intimately involved with, now rebuffs her).
As such, Opening Night serves to explore the internal conflict of a woman who is struggling to cope with the societal stigmatization of her age; indeed, everyone is ageing – it’s just that women aren’t allowed to get old.
At the end of the film, we see Myrtle rewrite the entire underlying message of the play; rather than succumb to being beaten to the floor by her co-star (an act that is written within the original performance), she precociously prowls the stage, challenging such ageist conceptions by transforming devastating drama into comedy: “we’ve been invaded!” she shouts sarcastically at her co-star (Cassavetes), “There’s someone posing here as us. And you’re right! …There is something definitely wrong with your smile”.
During this dynamic finale – an improv play wherein husband and wife mock society’s fetishisation over staying young- it seems that the filmmakers’ (plural, as Cassavetes attributed all filmmaking credit to his collective crew) intentions are clear: sometimes, the things that we’re told (about age, in this instance) don’t necessarily equate to reality.
3. Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2006, Canada)
Away From Her is based on a short story (‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ by Alice Munro) about an elder couple whose marriage is overwhelmingly shaken when wife Fiona (played by Julie Christie in Polley’s adaptation) begins to suffer the disorientating affects of Alzheimer’s disease.
In parallel with the plot, some segments of the narrative are unravelled in flashback, encouraging the viewer to actively piece together parts of the story, therefore empathising with the disjointedness of Fiona’s own fading memory. As her condition worsens, Fiona willingly moves into a nursing home where her husband, Grant, is instructed that he cannot visit for the first month of her stay. It proves to be a trying separation for Grant, who is shown, lost in his own seclusion: reading to himself, cooking by himself, and treading through blankets of snow as a lonesome silhouette against the setting sun, until reaching vast darkness.
When he is finally allowed to visit her, Grant finds that Fiona has formed a close relationship with one of the other care home residents and acknowledges him merely as if he were a hasty admirer: “my, you’re persistent”, she tells him each time he attempts to share an intimate moment with her. Not only does the film explore the devastating effects that ageing can have on the deeply rooted relationships of elderly couples, but also what it might mean when one person is emotionally severed from another through circumstances that neither can control.
Overwhelmed at his wife’s complete loss of memory towards their marriage, Grant even starts to question whether Fiona isn’t just purposefully punishing him for a previous period of infidelity, when as a teacher he had an affair with a young, female student. Polley handles such subject matter with dignity, incisiveness and subtle implications: while Fiona’s health may be deteriorating, it is Grant who is struggling with the conscious knowledge of the rapid passing of time and the prospect of being alone in old age.
We witness their relationship slipping through the cracks of fragmented memories; a profound play that frustratingly finds the couple away from one another- both mentally and physically- throughout most of the film. Indeed, it is only for a short moment, and at the very end of the film, that Fiona finally seems to recognise her husband once again; “you could have just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken,” she tells him (perhaps half-referring to, and finally forgiving, his past errors) as they embrace for what we are left wondering might be the final time.
2. The Company of Strangers (Cynthia Scott, 1991, Canada)
Cynthia Scott’s profoundly poetic film follows a group of elderly women (accompanied by one young guide) who find themselves stranded in a reclusive cottage when their bus breaks down. It is a simple story that provides a platform for the shunned voices of older women, and while each of the characters are from different backgrounds, all have a common understanding of solidarity and empathy between them.
The film unfolds as a semi-documentary/semi-fiction piece, with a loose, non-dictatorial script that allows the cast to respond to one another with little interruption or manipulation. Throughout the duration of the film, each woman recounts periods of her life, whilst encompassed by the vastness of rural nature.
Scott refuses to adhere to any belittling stereotypes of elderly people by allowing each of her charismatic characters space in which to contemplate the complexities of life and ageing. The women collectivise themselves according to their different skills and knowledge; working together with humour and wit to extract the most from their fruitful surroundings.
The film also explores the relationship between old and young through the intimate conversations that the elder women have with their bubbly, twenty-something tour guide, Michelle. In one scene, Beth, an eighty year old from London, explains her fears of looking older, inadvertently adhering to superficial principles of youth by wearing a wig every day to cover her thinned, grey hair: Michelle eventually coaxes her into removing the wig and, by extension, encourages her to eschew such ageist logic.
Indeed, the personal revelations of each of the women are both provocative and compelling: in another scene, seventy-four year old Alice and seventy-six year old Cissy, whilst picking berries to provide food for the group, exchange anxieties over leaving their loved ones behind: “what can we do uh?” Alice asks, to which Cissy humbly replies: “there’s nothing we can do”.
It is a raw and lyrical film that, above any other artistic aim, simply allows for the opinions and voices of elder women to meet and be heard. While being afforded freedom to interact with one another as naturally as possible, the women provide endearing and intelligent perspectives on the inevitability of growing old, and finding the courage to accept it.
1. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012, France/Germany/Austria)
Perhaps the most predictable – yet none less deserving – film to be included within this list, Amour serves as an arresting elegy to the topic of old age. Upon its release, the film opened- quite rightly- to mass critical acclaim, proving that such captivating, elderly characters are most certainly worthy of our undivided attention.
A renowned auteur, Haneke has never been one to care for the comfort of his audience; many of his films comprise some form of social critique concerned with the problematic conditioning of mainstream audiences, by the overarching ideologies of the Hollywood oligopoly. Amour, however, is different.
The film does not pursue any punishment of the audience, but instead, offers a tender and humane story that explores the experiences of unwavering love within the discourse of old age. Anne and Georges Laurent (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) are retired music teachers, living comfortably within their beautifully furnished Parisian apartment, complete with a polished, grand piano in the centre of the space.
The relationship is tragically shaken when Anne, in a muted and undramatic- yet powerful- moment, suffers a stroke that leaves her paralysed down one side of her body. As a result, the couple must strive to come to terms with their changed living situation, where Georges becomes carer to his wife, who is now confined to a wheelchair.
The usual visual style of Haneke is unsurprisingly apparent: bodies walk in and out of frames while the audience is left contemplating the stillness of an empty room; or a static camera will intently watch the mundane movements of a character, captured in a pensive, long-take. Each shot is meticulously composed of long corridors, multiple doorframes or rectangular windows overlooking outdoor settings, where the director refuses to tread.
In the case of Amour, Haneke’s precise and intricate employment of mise-en-scene constitutes the comfortable-turned-confined space in which the couple must now attempt to navigate. While the audience is aware of what will happen to Anne (from the revelations of an unnerving flashforward) this knowledge never threatens to undermine the loyal and painstaking efforts Georges goes to to comfort his wife.
We watch helplessly as he struggles to shuffle her from the toilet to her wheelchair; as he gently washes her hair, and reads to her while she sleeps. Then, as Anne’s condition worsens and Georges is pictured looking more fatigued and unshaven, we begin to wonder for how much longer one frail body can continue to support the other. However, George remains her guardian until the very end, which a swift and unhesitant final act serves to communicate clearly.
As the title suggests, what Amour is most concerned with – over any existential dilemma or apprehension towards ageing- is the deep adoration that is present in a partnership, wherein those involved have outgrown the cares of getting old, and where all that remains is an undying love that transcends both time and age.
Author Bio: Laura is a 23-year-old graduate from King’s College of London with a First Class Honours in Film Studies. Whilst scoping for a full time job, she works in a colourful,1950s-inspired coffee bar in central London and volunteer at an independently run art gallery in my spare time.