Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.
To the living, death feels detached, foreign, far away. Facing it drudges up rage and respect, during which histrionics could hardly be avoided or held against us, and we all hope to leave the image of an assured, complete life once we go.
With transcendent respect, sure-footed grace and surprising levity, 2008’s Departures dramatized those working with the dead on behalf of the living, and the challenge of rationalizing that amid cultural condemnations.
When his orchestra dissolves, Japanese cellist Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) returns to his hometown and takes the first job he finds: an apprenticeship to perform peaceful rituals of purifying and presenting the dead before they’re laid to rest.
Guided by a mentor (Tampopo’s Tsutomu Yamazaki, projecting the stoic poise of a Japanese Paul Newman), Daigo valets the dead — sending them off as he would a note, with precision, tenderness, personality and dynamics. Yet Daigo’s loving wife sees shame in his work, and guilt over a dead mother and absent father rack him.
Strangely comic and sturdily solemn, Yôjirô Takita’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign-Language Film understood that death’s arrival brings about lamentations (a crematorium attendant waxing philosophical) and laughter (an unlikely surprise Daigo finds when leading his first solo job).
Death is normal, and so are unexpected responsibilities, reconciliations and retreats from what we think are our dreams. In a perfect resolution, this film about how we choose to identify ourselves, and our loved ones, in life and death realized that some people must be left just as they went.