The history of cinematography has offered us severable memorable portraits of elderly people. Let us recall only Vittorio de Sica’s “Umberto D,” one of the masterpieces of Italian neorealism. The pensioner forgotten by the state, the bad-payer tenant who is always threatened with eviction, forced to sell his books at very low prices, incapable to beg because of the sense of shame, tempted by suicide thoughts, a pensioner whose only saving companion is a puppy just as hounded as he is – the character is memorable for the muffled sadness of the one about to be entirely “forgotten,” secluded and marginalized by his increasingly vulnerable condition, but one who does not decay morally instead managing to survive without losing his nobility and humanity. And even though he falls ill at one point, the situation is still remediable.
For many other elderly people though illness can be much more crippling, with much more serious moral implications. And contemporary cinematography tackles ever more insistently this rather ingrate subject. Because the sight of the physical and psychological degradation of seriously ill elderly people inevitably provokes, alongside possible empathy, disagreeable discomfort among spectators. And likewise induces various dilemmas of conscience.
However, it is no longer about the possible ingratitude of children who neglect their parents who have reached old age. Nor is it only about generational conflicts that persist even with the passage of time. The increasingly-discussed outlook of euthanasia is no longer avoided now. It was brutally brought before our eyes by Michael Haneke, whose film “Amour” triumphed in Cannes in 2012. It was about a piano player in her 80s, whose condition deteriorates seriously after a cerebral stroke. Her husband, in order to put an end to her suffering, eventually suffocates her with a pillow. The condition of former renowned pianist who lived an entire life in the refined world of classical music is now strongly undermined by the new statute of an apparently radical dehumanization. The contradiction seems so big that many spectators probably empathize with the husband’s final gesture of “love.”
This year’s edition of the Transylvania International Film Festival (TIFF) shows us that this debate continues. “Still Alice,” directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, was also popularized by the recent Oscar success of lead actress Julianne Moore, who plays the role of a renowned linguist prematurely affected by Alzheimer’s. A profession based on the study of words and reason’s strategies to communicate as complexly as possible was not chosen by chance, being at the opposite end of the destructuring brought about by this illness. The film shows us that, in fact, it is no longer about “still Alice,” not just because she is gradually abandoned by what normally creates our human identity and dignity – conscience and communication – but also because the others’ perception of her changes. Inevitably? This is an open question. In the film the husband only follows his selfish career plans, and the help from the children – now adults – does not surpass the level of affectionate compassion. The patient is alone, increasingly alone, and the thought of euthanasia springs in her mind. She would be the only one involved, but, overwhelmed by more impotence than she had foreseen, she will no longer be able to carry out her long-devised plan. It’s the case of euthanasia closest to an outright suicide. The reasons however seem to be the same: the desire to avoid the humiliations, pain and the burdening of those around.
Denmark’s Bille August’s “Silent Heart” is about a joint plant. Her husband and daughters along with their families jointly take part in the euthanasia, carried out early on, when the woman is still capable, so that the gesture would look like just a suicide. It’s like a ritual of mending fences, of resettling the entire small network of family relations. The daughters’ doubts dissipate gradually and death has to do with a “rational” and collectively-reached decision.
But maybe most suggestive is the rather dark comedy of Israel’s Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, “The Farewell Party.” A group of old friends and neighbours give in to the ardent pleading of one of them to be assisted to die. Subsequently however they become a sort of “death squad” that offers its services, becoming almost “professional.”
In all these cases the choice seems inevitable for any sensitive heart, being seemingly indisputably a supreme gesture of love (and even sacrifice), just like in Haneke. And yet, beyond the seriousness of the debate and the reality of the complex and varied suffering, the polemic vis-à-vis euthanasia is only just beginning. Because of strong opposition, it remains a political case all over the world. The Catholic Church for instance is one of the main opponents, and during the former Berlusconi Government the public opinion in Italy split into two camps a few years ago in the Eluana Englaro case, who had been living for almost two decades in a vegetative state, in other words in an extended coma. It was an extreme case where the effective decision could not belong to her. Apart from that however, it is about planning your own death before the onset of physical and mental decay. Beyond the arguments for and against euthanasia, the general outlook of the debate excessively circumscribes the debate, focusing on alleged dehumanization. But illness is nevertheless part of daily existence even when it is chronic. Let us take the example of another film, this time one present in the TIFF competition. Tom Browne’s “Radiator” presents an almost bedridden old man that terrorizes his wife with his whims. She serves him with devotion although eventually she will be the one that dies first. In fact, the illness only potentiates older attitudes and the merit of the film is that it stresses this dimension at the expense of an excessive exhibition of the inconveniences of the illness. We should not hypocritically neglect the latter, but neither should we minimize the fundamental meaning of human relations beyond junctures and contexts. Otherwise we will end up seeing euthanasia as an existential therapy not as a dilemma of conscience on the borders of moral philosophy.