The Roads Not Taken

                Leo (Javier Bardem) begins the day lying on his bed, ignoring both the doorbell and the telephone.  He’s awake, but he’s not moving.  The train rushes by past his grimy window.  The apartment is barely furnished, with little furniture and no decoration.  Finally Molly (Elle Fanning) rushes breathlessly inside, crying, “Papa, Papa, why didn’t you answer?”  And he just stares at her blankly.  Thus begin the dynamics of “The Roads Not Taken.”

                But Leo hasn’t always been beset with dementia.  Once, he was young and vigorous, and those are the times he returns to in his mind.  Really, we’re not sure if he’s remembering vivid things, or if he’s thinking about things he could have done but didn’t.  Or both.  But we catch glimpses of a couple of different phases of his life while Molly tries her best to get him to the dentist and the optometrist, and to buy him a new pair of pants.  The mundane things obviously don’t interest him.  He’s returning to the vivid times in his life.

                Like when he was married to his fiery first wife, Dolores (Salma Hayek).  She keeps wanting him to go somewhere with her, but he doesn’t want to come.  She pleads.   He still refuses.  Finally she leaves without him, but he comes running down the road after her.  His ambivalence, we discover, is understandable.  She wants to go visit the grave of their little boy.  The one who didn’t make it to school one day, and Leo is still overwhelmed with remorse that he didn’t look after him better.  He cries at the graveside, but then says he can’t stand the silence.

                Molly feels guilty, too, for not keeping a good enough eye on her Dad, when he wanders off into the New York streets while she’s sleeping on his couch, exhausted from taking care of him all day.  Once she had to enlist the aid of her Mom, Rita (Laura Linney), but since the divorce she’s backed off her responsibility.  There is also a hired caregiver, but not to take him on the errands.  We see Molly on the phone to work, saying that she had to take care of some things and would be in later.  She doesn’t seem to want to tell them she’s taking care of her Dad.  And it upsets her to hear, by phone, later on, that at work they assigned someone else to the big project she’d been working on.

                Yes, as we age, some of more gracefully than others, the vivid memories stand out, the stark moments when we had life-altering decisions to make.   And we think about what would have happened if we’d taken other roads.  But that’s a hard thing to explain to anyone else.  And sometimes the retreat into oneself becomes irreversible.

                The acting is superb, but the story line is just plain depressing.  Writer and Director Sally Potter takes us on mental voyages of guilt and remorse, but not much happiness or even contentment.  Those, perhaps, are elusive even for the cognizant, much less the demented.  Perhaps the silver lining of forgetting is no longer being plagued by the regrets.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association