In the pre-pandemic days of February 2020, The 70th Berlin International Film Festival has greeted us with many beautiful films. One of them, in the Competition category, was Sally Potter’s latest movie The Roads Not Taken, which introduces us to a man suffering from dementia and who has forgotten most of his past, living in his memories which are very few and very fugitive.
The Unbearable Weight of Forgetting
Potter invites us to get lost in the memories of the man who have been directly on screen from the beginning of the movie. So much so that as soon as the movie begins, a dark screen greets us; for a while, we are all trapped in this darkness and spend this time thinking about whatever we are inclined to think. Just then the phone rings, but the surroundings are still dark; no one picks up the phone, just like Leo (Javier Bardem), we are a partner of the life of this man (a stranger to himself) who has lost his memories.
The director’s opening with a completely dark scene allows the audience to communicate with the main character, Leo. With this dark scene, we better understand what the silent and forgotten world that Leo couldn’t fit into is like. The room where Leo lives in after the dark opening, we witness this character’s perception of the surroundings as completely dark even though his eyes are open. And some questions come to mind: “Is it our memory that allows us to see the colors, hear the sounds or smell lemon meringue pie?” or “Would we be completely blind if we don’t have our memories?”.
Potter shows how we can empathize in the cinema universe with someone with dementia in the early minutes of the movie. Before we learn more about Leo‘s illness, we meet her daughter Molly (Elle Fanning). Molly, who takes care of everything concerning her father, is literally filled with the desire and belief of building a brand-new cathedral from the wreck of her (gone) father. As the film goes on, we begin to witness the destruction of a person, from the very beginning.
Speaking the Spatial Language
The reality of the film’s story is so severe that it prevails over the objects in the film. So much so that the items used in the movie during the filming in Leo’s room, are especially so few; normally the colors and sizes of the items in cinema are exaggerated and they can take a lot of cinematic space. But in The Roads Not Taken, objects are silent just like Leo. This easily shows the character’s expression to the existing space.
During the film, we question the reason why Leo is in an intense forgetfulness, and while trying to understand it, we realize that in the movie, two basic elements about this issue are noticeable: First one is Leo‘s distorted relationship with his ex-wife (Salma Hayek), and the other one is his dialogue with a young girl he feels so close to. These two will be important factors in Leo’s life. Potter not only gives us the feeling of pity for a man with his past exposed in The Roads Not Taken, but she also gives the chance to question the same man, this time with his memories. In this perspective, we can say that the color palette of the film completely reflects Leo‘s spiritual world. The flashback and flash-forward scenes in the movie can give the difference between them very clearly.
Molly appears throughout the movie as Leo‘s contact source with the outside world. Molly, played by Elle Fanning, carries the character of Leo’s drama, which leaked into the general story of the film. So much that Molly‘s unwitting effort to entertain and make him smile for a moment may cause the most dramatic moments in the movie, because at that moment, even though his instant smile appears on his cheeks, seconds later, we find him in the dark world; this is actually the reflection of the irreversible road.
When / if you read the synopsis of The Roads Not Taken, you may think that you will encounter a slow movie, but this is perhaps one of the fastest progressing films in the genre of drama. The pace of the movie, the directing of the actors, everything gives a systematic vibe, like an auteur cinema experience. Well this is not without reason, because we know that Sally Potter is the one big force who carries the whole production: She is the one who came up with this wonderful story, she’s also the screenwriter and apart from directing, she’s the head of the editing team and, prepare yourself; she also composed the soundtrack!
All of this great commitment helps of course to reflect the clarity of the story, and it makes very easy to separate The Roads Not Taken from the classic style of other films of the same genre. And this full control helps us think and realize that forgetting is, at the same time, a recall to everything in a person’s life. Forgetting is part of life, because despite its nature, it involves the effort to remember.