‘The Roads Not Taken’: Film Review | Berlin 2020

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Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Laura Linney play family members in British director Sally Potter’s study of dementia.

The fertile fantasy of writer-director-composer Sally Potter, memorably on display in her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s multi-lives tale Orlando, comes disappointingly close to straight family drama in The Roads Not Taken, in which a working daughter spends a difficult day caring for her senile father.

Almost a mirror image of Wayne Wang’s recent Coming Home Again, it lacks the refined delicacy of the Korean-American tale about a mother dying of cancer and her grown son who puts his life on hold to care for her. Instead, it traces Leo’s mental voyage back to key moments his life, suggesting that the mind can work to heal old emotional wounds even when it’s mentally impaired. Leads Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning are commanding actors who give it all they’ve got to make their characters realistic, but while the film can be intriguing, it is never truly moving. The film bowed in Berlin competition.

Although publicity materials make much of the “roads not taken” and conjure up Leo (Bardem) going on hallucinatory trips and wandering into parallel versions of his life, most audiences are going to take the scenes in Mexico and Greece as simple flashbacks to emotionally charged moments in his past. There is nothing to contradict a timeline running from his Mexican life with his first wife Dolores (Salma Hayek) followed by marriage to his second wife Rita (Laura Linney) and his escape to a Greek island to write, where he briefly abandoned Rita and his infant daughter Molly. The latter is now a young working woman, probably a freelance journalist, who worries how she’s going to continue to be a caring presence in his life now that he’s lost his memory, most of his speech and his very sense of reality.

Having divorced Rita some years ago, Leo insists on living alone in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn just yards away from the clattering train tracks. Despite having a daytime caregiver, however, his mental condition has reached the stage when he needs assisted living. The day that Molly (Fanning) comes to call, he is so withdrawn he doesn’t even answer the phone or door buzzer. She rouses him from bed and gets him to dress so they can visit the dentist and optometrist, in what turns out to be a grueling day. Leo is frightened of the big city and unable to cooperate with the doctors. He also wets his pants, forcing a pit stop in a clothing warehouse where more misadventures try Molly’s patience. She has to rush him to the ER when he opens the door of a moving taxi and falls out.

Smoothly intercut with these present-day woes are two significant moments in Leo’s past (or his “parallel lives,” if the viewer prefers). In Mexico, he distresses Dolores when he refuses to attend the Day of the Dead ceremonies to mourn his dead son. He is so overwhelmed with his own grief and anger, he can’t bear to accompany her, no matter how passionately she pleads with him. The scene offers pretty clear evidence of Leo’s self-centered egotism as well as his childish stubbornness. Only once does he respond to her grief with a gesture of comfort, and it feels like a breakthrough for this selfish man.

The other key scene takes place on a beach in Greece, where a more dashing Leo becomes obsessed with a pretty girl who reminds him of Rita when she was younger. His frantic attempts to talk to her cross the line when he tries to row himself out to a party yacht where she is dancing, almost killing himself in the process. But something the girl says strikes him when she questions his decision to leave his baby to write a book. 

Bardem shows a bulldog tenacity in each of these scenes, in a role that brings to mind his performance as a quadriplegic man who fought for the right to die with dignity in Alejandro Amenabar’s 2004 The Sea Inside. It is also a sturdy role for Fanning, who reveals her ability to pace emotional responses, particularly in the final scenes. As one might expect in a Potter film, the female roles are sharply drawn and distinctive, including Hayek’s tragic mother who has lost her son and Linney’s still angry and insecure divorced wife.

Potter, who is also a composer, wrote her own score for the rich musical accompaniment that is generally a notch or two more cheerful than the events onscreen. DP Robbie Ryan (The Favourite) creates very different feelings in the film’s varied locations. There’s a striking shot of Manhattan twinkling with illumination against a brightly lit Brooklyn Bridge that is almost a counterpoint to the small Mexican cemetery which glows by candlelight on the Day of the Dead.  

Production company: Adventure Pictures
Cast: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney, Branka Katic, Milena Tscharntke, Waleed Akhtar
Director-screenwriter: Sally Potter
Producer: Christopher Sheppard
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Carlos Conti
Costume designer: Catherine George
Editors: Emilie Orsini, Sally Potter, Jason Rayton
Music: Sally Potter
Casting directors: Irene Lamb, Heidi Levitt
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
World sales: HanWay Films

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