Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. It’s the phrase that highlights the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno. It could just as easily by carved above the entrances to many nursing and retirement homes. I recalled that phrase as we watched the 2011 animated film, Wrinkles, last night.
Susan thought it the most depressing film she’d ever seen. I rather liked it: it was honest and artistically interesting. But not uplifting, I’ll agree. There is a sense of redemption at the end, but it is not the happily-ever-after sort of ending that most film redemption brings. It’s more of the shake-hands-with-reality sort of acceptance that things don’t change.
The story is set in a retirement home and revolves around the friendship between two elderly men, one of them in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
There aren’t many happy endings in any film about dementia or Alzheimer’s. The 2006 Canadian movie, Away From Her, captured it beautifully and poignantly. The 1981 film On Golden Pond did too, from another angle. But no matter how artistically rendered, it’s an uncomfortable, sad story in any situation.
Then there’s the whole matter of people putting their aging parents into nursing homes. Even when done for the best of reasons – care, safety, oversight, concern, love and the inability of modern, working adults to cope effectively with the demands of an ill or aging parent- it still feels to many of the elderly that they have been abandoned. Shuffled off to wait out their inevitable death away from all the people they knew, the places they knew and the daily routines of their lives to a place devoid of romance, of passion, of familiarity.
Is this what we live our lives for? That question haunts the film.
You can’t feel the same depth of emotion with an animated film, so perhaps it’s the better vehicle for exploring the theme. It doesn’t wrench the tears from viewers the same way human actors can. Still, it has its moments.
The retirement home in Wrinkles is beautiful, staffed by caring and affectionate people, well maintained, well-lit and clean. But for the characters, it’s still a prison. This is symbolized by the indoor swimming pool in the home.
A beautiful, well-kept pool for the residents is a focal point of the property. Prospective clients, looking to place their elderly parents somewhere, see it and are impressed. The place has a gym, too, and a library. It all conspires to make the place seem inviting, with a range of resources, activities and entertainments for the seniors in their care. But they remain unused: the inmates spend almost no time in them. Instead, they nap in front of the TVs, which show programs no one wants to watch, but cannot change the channels. Other times they are in the dining room, eating together on the fixed schedule.
That’s all downstairs. Upstairs is the zone where no one goes: the Dantean place where the hopeless are taken. The floor for those no longer able to care for themselves. That’s where the patients with Alzheimer’s are removed to. And throughout the film, although it remains a mystery, it casts its dark shadow on the characters. It is the end of the line.
There are two main characters: Emilio, a retired banker who we follow from the start, and Miguel, his roommate and long-time resident. Miguel provides the humour and a lot of the interest, although we wonder about his motives most of the time. He’s a bit of the con man, but he’s also our tour guide.
The setting is unmagical. Mundane. Seasons change outside the windows without really making a difference to those inside. Small events in the lives of one or two almost seem momentous until you realize that the mechanical gears still churn in the background without any flicker of emotion. The review in the Hollywood Reporter noted:
Economically adapted from Roca’s critically-acclaimed 2007 text by four scriptwriters including Roca and Ferreras, Wrinkles takes a commendably unsentimental and nuanced approach to a complex subject, one that avoids melodramatic situations and simplistic characterizations while adhering to certain conventions of this particular sub-genre. While Emilio is essentially a well-meaning surrogate for the audience to explore the retirement home’s spaces, ways and inmates, Miguel emerges as a fascinating, three-dimensional figure despite this being an old-fashioned example of 2-D animation, executed with 21st century digital technology.
Jeanette Catsoulis reviewing it in the New York Times, wrote:
Whether you find “Wrinkles,” an animated look at creeping inanimation, amusing or terrifying will depend almost entirely on which side of 50 you are currently parked. Even the youngest viewer, however, will sense the tragedy coming off this film in waves: It takes more than cartoon characters to buffer the horror of human decline… In this way, the animation is a gift: Watching scenes like these in live action would be unbearably sad.
I suppose that, being parked on the far side of 50, it affected me more than it might younger viewers. I’ve seen those place, I’ve walked their halls all too often, and wondered to myself how well I would fare in them. I’ve looked at the tiny collection of personal belongings each resident is allowed to bring, and thought that every book I had to leave behind would be a razor cut into my soul. I’ve watched the nurses and attendants wheel the Alzheimer’s patients to their meals and patiently feed them, wiping their faces with stoic affection.
Just before he died, from his hospital bed my father asked me whether I thought it was better to die like that – not knowing what was happening to you – or with an alert mind. I said an alert mind, thinking of myself and my own restless mind. I wasn’t thinking of his suffering. I wasn’t thinking of the cancer eating him, the pain that distracted him from any enjoyment he might have had from even the simple act of reading, and the constant reminders of the inevitable death looming over him.
We all face it, but is it better to see it coming? Or to go quietly into that long night? I’m not sure how I’d answer that question today.
Wrinkles was originally in Spanish (2011) but got voice-overs for its 2014 release in North America. It received rave reviews from many critics. I picked up a copy of this video from a vendor at the GNE this weekend who may still have some left. It’s well worth viewing.