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Bittersweet Reflections On Life and Death

Lucky – Concorso internazionale

Bittersweet Reflections On Life and Death

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Locarno’s merciless heat did not stop a fully packed press room from clapping jubilantly as the Swiss festival welcomed the cast and crew of another one of this edition’s gems, Lucky, John Carrol Lynch’s film-making debut.

A delicate and bittersweet reflection on life and death starring 91-year-old Harry Dean Stanton as its lead character, Lucky premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and has ever since received overwhelmingly positive reviews, with critics hailing Stanton’s performance as his career’s best.

The Kentucky-native returns to the dusty deserts he walked along in Paris, Texas, and his character is no less aloof than the red-hatted father he played in Wim Wenders’ 1984 Palma d’oro winner. Having outlived (and out-smoked) most of his acquaintances, Lucky’s title character lives in a one-bedroom apartment, smokes three packets of cigarettes per day, and limits his interactions with other human beings to the staff and clients of a local diner.

As the delegation headed by Lynch made it clear during an August 4 press conference, this was not just a feature starring Stanton, but a tribute to his cinematic persona – an homage by a character actor to another. In the words of writer Logan Sparks, (whose friendship with Stanton dates back to at least two decades, and who served as his assistant on Big Love), “the idea was to honor the way Harry Dean has changed our lives.” This without turning Lucky into a documentary, “but a film people could follow along, something that would have a linear narrative.”

Stanton turned into Lucky’s cornerstone, but as much as the movie was crafted for him (“we did not consider anyone else for his role – not even for a second,” stressed writer Drago Sumonja), Lynch and the crew had some serious convincing to do. “Harry Dean is a zen master,” chuckled Sparks. “He claims he likes to do nothing, and rest afterwards.”

But once Stanton agreed, everything fell into place, and people joined the project en masse. The whole casting process was seamless. “We asked people we knew and loved to make a movie with us,” said Lynch, “and they agreed. Many of them came specifically because they got a chance to play with Harry Dean for a day or two.” And this was true not only for the cast, but for the crew as well. “Those who came to join the party were there because of their joy of Harry Dean Stanton’s career and work, and the way the script encapsulated his life.”

Written, shot and acted by people who had thus been affected – to different extents – by Stanton himself, Lucky turned into an increasingly personal work, with writers Sparks and Sumonja deliberately naming some characters after their relatives, and Lynch casting his own father as a bar customer. “Everything was so new to him,” commented the director on his father’s experience on stage, “and yet he was just so incredibly calm, so calm at one point I had to walk in and tell him to wake up.”

For a movie where death feels like a tangible presence, a character in its own right lingering above the audience throughout its 88 minutes, Lucky remains a movie filled with joy and humour. “The smell of death in Lucky is not rancid,” stressed Lynch, “it can be sweet.” And while loneliness may follow Stanton like an achingly vivid ghost, this remains at its core a love declaration to a man and his art, and a powerful, harrowing portrayal of his relationship with the audiences he has haunted throughout the decades. A relationship which Lynch summed up most eloquently in a haunting smile Stanton delivers looking straight at the camera, towards the end’s picture.

As Lynch remarked, “it’s almost as though for the first time in his sixty-years career he’s finally looking at us, the people who’ve been watching him from the dark for so long. And it’s as if that smile said: I know you were there, I know I’ve been talking to you the whole time.”

Leonardo Goi

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