‘Sibyl, what do you want?’
She answered, ‘I want to die’.—Petronius, Satyricon
Iranian director Reza Jamali’s feature film debut, Old Men Never Die, tells a story about a group of centennials living together in a remote and sparsely populated village where no one has ever died in the past 45 years. Having had enough of the tiresomely long epilogue to their lives, these old men improvise a number of ways to commit suicide without ever succeeding. Ironically, when most of them have given up trying and start to reignite an interest in life, with a baby born dead, the angel of death who had seemingly forgotten the village appears to return.
In the story, people believe that the curse of this unending life in the village is punishment sentenced on one of them, Aslan, for all his killings in his youth when he was the head of a death squad. Although in Islamic tradition the common idea is that the judgement comes after the death, here it arrives in the protagonist’s worldly life as being denied an end to it. To set themselves free from the curse, they attempt to kill themselves over and over regardless of how their faith forbids it, and the efforts of the stationed soldiers who diligently prevent them from doing so, only end up killing the meaningless time that remains.
The mythical Cumaean Sibyl asked Apollo for a life span totaling as many grains of sand as she could hold in her hand in exchange for her virginity. Her wish indeed came true, only with the near-immortality withering away until all that was left was her voice, as she forgot to ask for eternal youth. So, when being asked, all that Sibyl could wish for was to die, because not only was she more decrepit than she could bear, she was also prophetess, the limitless knowledge of human affairs would eventually become a burden much too heavy. Another model of immortality is Chang’e in the Chinese mythology, who drank an elixir and was uplifted to the Moon where she stays alone forever. She is blessed with eternal youth, yet has to sacrifice her worldly life and bears her loneliness one day after another.
Whereas for the old men in the film, they have each other to spend time with. And as ordinary people, there are always bodily instincts, desire, or curiosity remaining in them playing against their wish for death, despite the daily absence of flavor and the stagnation depicted in the static shots of their naturally slow motion. When they try to suffocate themselves from the fumes of a coal fire, the body beats the mind and eventually drives them out; when two of them hold each other’s head under water in the bath, they can’t help but struggle so much that it buys some time for the soldiers to notice the incident and save them both. And when they are not busy with the thought of death, they talk about trivial news and tease each other, fix their house, develop their hobbies such as photography, feel attracted to the daughter of the teahouse owner, or get amazed by the grass and flowers that happen to grow on their leaky roof— their lives are after all not completely without charm, despite the diseases and shabbiness.
The past year has witnessed a quiet boom of titles about old men. This film shares the calmness after all the vicissitudes embraced in the extreme wide shots and cool colors on the wide screen with The Old Man and the Gun directed by David Lowery and Clint Eastwood’s The Mule. This film acknowledges the absurdity of life and the fun made out of it, whereas in the other two features, the protagonists are still cool and determined in their old age, retaining a vigorous cowboy fashion.