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How films portray ageing

Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth centres on two close friends sharing a vacation at an exclusive Swiss spa. Seen here are actors Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel.

Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth centres on two close friends sharing a vacation at an exclusive Swiss spa. Seen here are actors Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel.

In our increasingly digital world, we get an enormous amount of information from films. Our imagination has always been fired up by films – a relationship that has endured since the first films. How older people are portrayed in film is best described through the interpretation of a narrative arc. An arc is the linear development of a story – a beginning, a middle and an end. 

One of the first films describing a simple story about older people is the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru by director Akira Kurosawa, acclaimed for the Seven Samurai, Rashomon and Ran.

Ikiru has a fairly simple narrative arc. An older man who worked in an office all his life, on the cusp of retirement, is informed that he has terminal cancer. The narrative arc focuses on the main character in the film, attempting to find meaning and leaving behind a legacy in his life before he dies. This simple story highlights that after one’s entire life spent doing what you are supposed to do – work and family commitments – what is important at the end is relationships. At the end, he finds some solace among his younger mates, where he finds friendship.

This narrative arc of an older man at the end of life was further developed by another seminal director, Ingmar Bergman, who in 1957 wrote and directed Wild Strawberries. Filmed in black and white, perhaps in homage to Ikiru, the film goes further in search of the meaning of one’s life. Following a fairly similar story of an accomplished professor, Wild Strawberries explores the question of what was it all about? We do not have ambitions for getting old, and once we get there, we remain without a plan. Admired but not loved, the professor starts to explore what the continuation of his story in older age should be. Like Ikiru, relationships seem to be the answer. Such a conclusion is not far-fetched from what we observe at the end of life.

We do not have ambitions for getting old, and once we get there, we remain without a plan

In 2012 Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, wrote The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. Our two male protagonists in Ikiru and Wild Strawberries follow these regrets. These misgivings focused on having unfulfilled dreams and unrequited loves; not having the courage to follow their dreams, (mostly) men tended to regret working so hard; stifling feelings in order to settle for a mediocre existence. And not staying in touch with their friends and loved ones. And the final regret is not allowing oneself to be happy. They got stuck in a rut. The agreement between the narrative of these two films and the five regrets of dying people is stunning.

Some films on ageing tend to start off with a negative view of ageing, and then transform into a story about friendship and family, that it is not too late to address past regrets. But what if this transformation did not take place? If the negative view of ageing remains without the salvation of a new-found story for older age? This is the story of the two characters in the 2015 Italian film Youth.

Paolo Sorrentino’s film centres on two close friends sharing a vacation at an exclusive Swiss spa. One is a film director who continues producing the same kind of films, surrounded by increasingly younger writers. The other character is a music composer who has decided to retire. The composer stopped composing – to the chagrin of many – because of his wife’s dementia which he hid from everyone including his daughter. He made changes that address this trauma and his ageing.

Negative events in life sometimes change our story for the better. We realise what is important. In contrast, the other character, the director, only had one story – to remain doing what he did in the past. He did not have a different story for when he got older, and the quality of his work diminished. At the end, his suicide was the only answer to his failing career since he did not have a plan B, an evolving story for getting old.

We also place people in a story. We create a cage for them. Do a little exercise with me.

Let’s imagine that you have a 100-year-old woman you are going to interview. What is the single question that you will ask her. Write it down. Then assume that you have a 16-year-old girl coming to be interviewed. What single question would you ask? Write it down.

The prediction is that you probably ask the older woman about her past and the younger woman about her future. You have already hemmed them into your view of what their story should be.

To age successfully, we must have a story that goes beyond adulthood – to extend into older adulthood. Our story is important because it is how we conduct our life, including into older age. What films teach us is that others can influence our story about getting older.

Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US. He will be publishing a book on Coming of Age: How Films Portray Ageing later this year.

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