Uberto Pasolini’s Nowhere Special, screening at IFFK 2021, is moving without being melodramatic

This film about a father and a son is designed as 'sad' but not 'depressing.'

Baradwaj Rangan February 13, 2021 13:16:16 IST
Uberto Pasolini’s Nowhere Special, screening at IFFK 2021, is moving without being melodramatic

Still from Nowhere Special. YouTube

At some level, John (James Norton) is the bestest dad ever. That’s what his four-year-old, Michael (Daniel Lamont), might say. John combs Michael’s hair for lice. John reads Michael a bedtime story, very patiently, with no indication of the pain he is going through due to a terminal illness. And John is trying to find Michael a new set of parents. He’s trying to get Michael adopted by a couple before he dies. John tells a prospective couple, a very rich couple, “He deserves a normal family… All the opportunities I never had.” John is a window-washer.

One day, at an overbridge, John points to the vehicles below and tells Michael, “All these lorries, taking so many things to so many places… One day, would you like to be in a different place?” That’s another reason to love John, the way he speaks – again, very patiently – to Michael about things way beyond the boy’s comprehension. How do you bring up adoption? Maybe by talking about lorries on the highway. After all, Michael’s favourite toy is a little plastic lorry. Maybe that’s how he will understand?

Or how do you talk about Michael’s mother, who left when the boy was a baby? Maybe you just say she had to go away, far away. Or how do you talk about death? By having Michael read a book titled “When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death”. He tells Michael, later, “One day Daddy will leave his body but he will always be around you… In the air around you… In the sunshine that warms you....” This notion comes to him from an older woman, whose mother hated the idea of “dust unto dust”. The older woman’s mother used to say: We are not earth but air.

Just like death is everywhere in this movie, so are mothers. Michael’s runaway mother. The older woman’s mother. The numerous couples he meets, one of whom fosters children. The woman is unable to get pregnant. Every month she feels she has failed as a woman. And then there is John himself, who is both father and mother to Michael. When they decide to bake a cake and go to the supermarket, they don’t know which baking powder to buy, and they ask a heavily pregnant woman (i.e. a mother-to-be). She assumes Michael’s mother is baking a cake for him.

Uberto Pasolini’s Nowhere Special had its world premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, in the Orizzonti section. It’s impossible not to recall Ken Loach’s films like Sorry We’ve Missed You, which revolves around another father, another family in a deep crisis. But we don’t feel the despair we felt in the Loach drama. The director told Variety that his intention was “to stay away from melodrama, stay away from heaviness… And so, just as the father tries to keep the worst or the more obviously emotional aspects of the situation away from his child, we approached the film in the same way.

Yes, it’s supposed to be a sad story, but it’s not supposed to be a depressing story, so lightness of touch is what we aimed for.”

The film is framed through the glass windows John cleans, in the sense that many people are seen through windows big and small. In fact, Michael’s first appearance in the film is when we see him through a window. This gives a serene (and sterile) sense of an afterlife, if you will, where people seem to be going about their business noiselessly. (We cannot hear them from this side of the window). You could say Pasolini shoots through the window-glass, too. That’s how he gets the “lightness of touch” he speaks of.

The screenplay is structured as a series of repetitive events. John meets Couple No 1. John meets Couple No 2. John meets Couple No 3. And so on. Why do we need to see so many candidates? Because we need to feel John’s confusion. He tells his adoption case worker he thought he would know if he saw the parents that would be the right choice for Michael, but it’s hard to decide. There’s another reason. He probably knows Michael better than anyone else. But the boy is four! Does John know enough about Michael to decide a set of parents the boy will be okay with when he is, say, 14?

Or take the concept of a “memory box”, that the adoption centre brings up. They want John to put some of his things inside, so that Michael – later – can see these things and know who his biological father was. But wouldn’t it be better to erase the past entirely and give Michael a blank-slate start with a new family? Pasolini paints these macro questions in miniature form. This is a film that shows us the tattoos on John’s arms and neck. It’s up to us – if we so desire – to register the irony of these permanent markings on a man with only a few months to live.

At several points, I was reminded of Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), where the wife leaves (she wants to find herself, her identity) and the husband has to fend for himself and his little boy. I love that film, which wore its heart far more flagrantly on its sleeve: it is mainstream Hollywood, after all. And it has a solid beginning-middle-end structure. At the beginning, the problem is stated: the wife leaves. Here, there’s no scene of, say, John getting a “you have x months to live” report from a sorry-faced doctor. As Pasolini says, “It’s like meeting somebody on the bus – you just meet these people and you gradually find out a bit more about them. You enter their lives, and then you follow them for a while, and then you leave them.” Instead of events, we follow emotions.

Nowhere Special is being screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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