by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
Aristotle, in The Poetics, defined tragedy as a medium that arouses pity and fear in the audience, a kind of catharsis. Florian Zeller, in his debut as a film director, adapts his play, Le Pere, to the screen in a remarkable reminder of a fate that is soul-shaking and threatens us all. Some, the fortunate, escape it, but those who are caught in its grip suffer a grievous loss that they did not deserve, one which robs them of their essential self.
Anthony Hopkins plays the protagonist in a performance that won him the Best Actor award at the 93rd Academy. The film was released in the United States in February 2021 and is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime.
The film opens with the father, Anthony, alone in his London apartment. His daughter, Anne, played by Olivia Coleman, comes to visit him. She needs to deal with her father’s having driven away his most recent caretaker, a crisis because, as she finally tells him, she plans to move to Paris with a lover. Anthony is taken aback by the news of her impending departure, but stoutly maintains his ability to manage on his own. He insists, further, that the caretaker was a thief who had purloined his wristwatch. Anne suspects that her father might have hidden the watch in a repository he has in his bathroom. She finds it there and returns it to him. The implication is clear. Anthony is becoming increasingly forgetful.
As the film unfolds, fractured timelines, unannounced flashbacks and duplicated characters invoke in the minds of the audience a replica of Anthony’s growing dementia.
Contributing to the weight of Anthony’s loss is Anne’s dilemma. Her focus on caring for her father has led to a breakup in her marriage. Her father’s ongoing idealization of Lucy, her younger sister, and her father’s insistent and invidious preference for Lucy galls her in ways she cannot express. And she is further burdened by having to sacrifice her own needs in order to care for her father, whose memory loss shields him from even recognizing that Lucy has died in an earlier auto accident.
Anthony’s on-going fixation on his watch suggests an emphasis on the issue of time. Paul Ricoeur, in Time and Narrative, argues that the human experience of time is tied to the human capacity to organize experience into narrative episodes in which time is embedded. In a sense, our identities are defined by the role we are playing in the story that we construct about our lives. As Anthony becomes increasingly confused, his ability to recognize, not just the people around him, but who he, himself is, also dissipates.
As the film ends, Anthony is a tragic figure, stripped of his dignity, lost, in tears, begging for his mother.
Pity and fear: strong stuff.