In English director Sally Potter’s most recent feature, The Roads Not Taken, the first discernible words uttered by the main character, are “everything is open.” In a sense this statement, mumbled by Leo, a writer living with Dementia, (perfectly portrayed by Hollywood A-Lister, Javier Bardem), gives the viewer a quick synopsis of the entire film. The screenplay, (also written by Potter), jumps backwards and forwards between three different points in Leo’s life. We see him as a younger man, married to Salma Hayek and mourning the death of their son, in exile from his second marriage, writing alone in Greece and finally as an older man, confused and depleted by the illness, being guided through a single day’s errands around the city in the company of his daughter Molly, (sensitively played by Elle Fanning). Everything is open at the same time in this movie. Time is fluid as Leo’s memory leaps and flits from one period to the next. Potter does a masterful job of capturing the eternal present of living with Dementia where the past can seem just as real and believable as the moment the person is actually living in. I particularly enjoyed the way the movie skipped seamlessly between the various stages of Leo’s life, leaving much unsaid, mumbled or deliberately confusing, so the viewer empathises with the confusion experienced by Leo and his family.
The strongest section of The Roads Not Taken is undoubtedly the strand set in Leo’s present. The relationship between Leo and his daughter Molly -who has taken on much of the carers role- is believable, warm and occasionally heart-breaking. We see Molly’s distress when her father wanders off in the middle of the night. We see her struggle to understand his speech and promise to, “try harder to see it from your point of view. To see what you see.” We see her frustrated when she loses out on a big job because of her responsibilities with her father. We see her irate at the way others treat Leo, speaking over him and patronising him. But what comes across most strongly in Potter’s depiction of their relationship is the way father and daughter continue to find small moments of connection even as the illness forces them apart. There’s a particularly poignant scene in the bathroom at the dentist’s when, having soiled his own trousers, Molly gives her father hers. Even in the midst of humiliation and confusion there are moments when this movie manages to laugh and yet there’s no schmaltzy ending here, no neat conclusion or moment of epiphany. Leo and Molly’s situation is just as complex and difficult at the end of their day together as it was in the opening credits. Neither does Potter attempt to deify Leo or paint Molly as a saint. Both are flawed, occasionally failing characters. This is what makes them believable.
Bardem is wonderful in this movie. He has a huge presence onscreen and the sheer bulk of his body, though slowed and atrophied by Dementia, refuses to be relegated to the ranks of a shadowy invalid. He is enormously present throughout. The camera often lingers painfully close to his face, exposing every wrinkle and pore. We are forced to look straight and deliberately at Leo as a person, present with his illness. Here, it is impossible to ignore the person living with Dementia. The Roads Not Taken takes an unflinching look at Dementia and our treatment of people living with the illness. To some extent, this unflinching personal gaze makes the viewer feel culpable in the way society has othered, dismissed and ignored the Dementia experience. I don’t think this is any bad thing.
The Roads Not Taken was directed by Sally Potter and released in the UK in September 2020