While Mexican director Michel Franco's story about a palliative care worker may not be completely developed, his overarching theme proves to be quite illuminating as well as disturbing. His protagonist is the driven David, very well-played by Tim Roth, known for work in wide variety of independent and mainstream features. Chronic is divided into three segments focusing on the three patients David cares for. The first has little dialogue and focuses on David taking care of an emaciated woman whom we later learn is named Sarah. The camera is fixed at a distance and we see David assiduously attending to Sarah, carrying her around as she is unable to walk and propping her up in the shower, as he bathes her. Soon afterward David is attending the woman's funeral and is approached by the niece of the woman who seeks information as to her aunt's last days. David declines to speak with her. Franco's theme soon becomes apparent—family members keep their distance from relatives chronically ill, facing their last days. Only the palliative care worker—in this case one who appears to care deeply about his patients—seeks to get involved by engaging with the dying, on a deeper emotional level. David so identifies with his patients that when queried by strangers at a bar, he refers to Sarah as his wife, an AIDS patient, who has just died. In the next and most compelling segment, David goes as far as going to a bookstore and purchasing books on architecture in order to converse with his next charge, John, a former architect now debilitated by a devastating stroke. Again, it's the extra effort he puts in to take care of his patients that's so impressive (he voluntarily takes over the night shift for the next nurse on duty free of charge). Unfortunately, John's family doesn't take too kindly to David allowing John to watch pornography on his laptop, and soon he's being accused of sexual harassment and forced to leave John immediately. Again the theme of society's aversion to confronting mortality is reiterated. There is nothing salacious about David's actions—he simply seeks to improve the quality of life for his patients and bring them a measure of humanity and dignity in their dying days. What causes David to be so self-sacrificing? Franco presents David's backstory in dribs and drabs—contact via the computer and in person between his ex-wife and daughter provides a sketchy picture of a man who was forced to deal with the terminal illness of his son—ultimately deciding to pull the plug much to the chagrin of family members. There's not much more to what makes David tick but he's the kind of saint that makes people uncomfortable. Franco's portrait of David's devotion to his patients is uplifting and reminds us that we should all be more sympathetic to those facing end of life issues. In the last segment, David forms a relationship with a woman undergoing chemotherapy and ultimately facing a terminal diagnosis. Again David's engagement of the dying is cathartic, but Franco now shifts gears by injecting another issue into the narrative involving assisted suicide. David's ambivalence about how he handles this situation is brought out and this is how the story basically ends. There is a coda, however, that some critics found specious (Super Spoilers ahead). David, who jogs in his spare time, is suddenly hit by a car and is killed in the final scene. Franco perhaps is hammering us a bit too hard when the devoted healer ironically meets an untimely end himself. Chronic is not for everyone. It's slow-moving and its protagonist is not much of a developed character. Nonetheless, the theme of compassion for the dying and society's aversion to such a subject, is a wake-up call for the majority of us who choose not to reckon with the reality of our own mortality.
A home care nurse works with terminally ill patients.
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May 8, 2019