GRIEF ON FILM: My top ten films about grief

A few months ago, my husband and I saw Danny Boyle’s ingeniously plotted Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. It mesmerized and horrified me with its gritty, realistic portrayal of the plight of India’s slum orphans as seen through the eyes of eighteen year old Jamal, whose poverty stricken childhood provides him with the answers that help him win 20 million rupees on India’s version of ” Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” And then came the last fifteen minutes.  Now I like a Bollywood (or Hollywood) musical as much as the next person.  But in the context of this disturbing film, I found the end—a romantic wrap up and rousing dance number—strangely out of place.  This is how I usually react to feel-good endings tacked on stories purporting to be about grief.  We who’ve taken the grief journey know there can be light within it, but to suggest that it’s easily or quickly found, as many novels and films do, negates the potential for real human growth after tragedy, and contributes to the delegitimizing way we deal with other people’s bereavement. As I wrote in my novel, “Saving Elijah,” “The miracles (that come with grief) are of the deepest truest kind, because those miracles have to do with the giving and the cherishing of our blessings rather than the getting of them or the asking for them.  Miracles of friendship and forgiveness, hope and peace and faith, can always be found by those willing to search, can be found even in the darkest of packages.”

       With that in mind, I wrote a piece for on the ten films that I think best illuminate grief without stereotyping, sugarcoating or sentimentality and thus, like all true works of art, tell some real truth about the human condition.  Here’s the first one:

1) The Savages

Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins,”The Savages”is a nuanced, closely observed film about a middle-aged brother and sister reckoning with their guilt, responsibility, and ambivalent feelings when their long estranged father develops vascular dementia and has to be placed in a nursing home.  Funny and tragic, with amazing performances by the gifted Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings Jon and Wendy, with incredible work by Philip Bosco as their father, Lenny,The Savages lacks a single false moment. It fully and believably conveys complex characters and their tragic situation without trying to impose closure, false hope or catharsis. The film is particularly notable for its frank depiction of the messiness of grief, which itself springs from the complexity and messiness of human relationships. For all its tragedy, it manages to achieve real moments of grace in the only way grace can be achieved in such situations, in small moments of mercy and discovery, with bruising honesty, comedy, pathos, and irony.

More grief on film to come  

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