Still Life is a brilliant little gem - for the most part anyway - that reflects on mortality, isolation and the tragedy of a wasted life. All this sounds grim, but the film will have you smiling and chuckling most of the way. The story concerns a meek, bookish London council clerk (Eddie Marsan) whose job is to track down relatives of those who have died alone and without any apparent family. Despite pressure from his technocrat supervisor (Andrew Buchan) to wrap up these cases quickly, Marsan is blessed - or cursed - with extraordinary compassion for his “clients”, as he refers to them. He goes to great effort to discover their pasts and give these lost souls a decent burial, even composing high minded, hand written eulogies based on whatever scraps of information he can uncover.
Writer/director Uberto Pasolini skillfully conducts this delicate detective story in an off-kilter minimalist style combined with a humorous meticulousness; a sort of Mike Leigh meets Tarkovsky. Still Life also fits very nicely within the British tradition of social realism , or anti-social realism in this case, as we soon learn the reason for Marsan’s strong identification with his roster of forgotten corpses. His personal life is a case study in isolation, as this friendless man returns every evening to his tiny flat for a feast of tuna fish on toast. His quiet nights are consumed with the painstaking creation of scrapbooks filled with faded photos of his recently departed charges, which he files and alphabetizes with the slow burn intensity of an obsessed social worker for the dead.
Surprisingly, Pasolini uses the dour visuals of death as a framework for comedic interactions and strikes an amusing contrast between the dignity of the deceased and the callow concerns of the living. At funerals where he is the lone attendee, Marsan’s puffy cheeks and chubby fingers strike a reverent pose while vicars and undertakers go about their tasks with bemused, forced sincerity. But the numbing routine of Marsan’s years of service is suddenly broken when he meets the daughter (Joanne Froggatt) of a recently perished vagrant who seems to share his sensibilities. For the first time, Marsan considers forsaking the care of the dead for a full embrace of the living.
Still Life runs into some trouble as it approaches conclusion due to a shocking moment that, while conceptually appropriate, is nonetheless a massive buzzkill. Pasolini recovers a bit with a flight into metaphysics, but for a film that thrives on eclectic realism his ending seems oddly out of character. Yet there is much wonderfulness in Still Life that begs a thorough mental unpacking from the viewer. Its commentary on intense loneliness during an era of hyper-connectedness offers both light hearted amusement and chilling condemnation of modern society. And it will make you want to give those around you a great big hug.