By M.A. Joe Antony, SJ
‘How helpful this film could be for all those who have to wrestle with grief caused by the death of their life partner! This could make them think and even show them the path to beat the gnawing grief.’ That is what I thought soon after watching this short film of just 35 minutes.
On a Serpentine Road, with the Top Down is the first episode in Season 2 of the popular anthology, Modern Love, released by Amazon Prime Video on 13 August 2021. These films (episodes) are fictionalized versions of the popular column, ‘Modern Love’ published in the New York Times. In the films of Season 1, released last year, all the action took place in New York city.
But obviously love is not something restricted to New York. Isn’t it found everywhere? Herbert Shipman wrote, “Across the gateway of my heart/ I wrote “No Thoroughfare”/ But love came laughing by and cried/ “I enter everywhere!” Therefore, quite rightly, for some of the episodes of Season 2 the producers have moved to other countries. This episode takes place in Ireland, I think.
The story revolves around Stephanie (played by Minnie Driver), who is a medical doctor loved by everyone – Niall, her second husband, her two daughters, her patients and even her car mechanic. She drives a vintage sports car, which is not merely old, but actually dying. The car keeps breaking down in spite of all the repairs and one day the frustrated mechanic swears, “I am changing my number until you get rid of this thing.” Her second husband, Niall (played by Don Wycherley), who sees to the bills and taxes, tells her repeatedly to sell the dying car.
Some others, like Stephanie, find it impossible to let them die, though they are dead. So they try to keep them alive in whatever way possible.
We soon learn why the smart, affable Stephanie holds on to the old car. It was bought by her first love and husband, Michael (played by Tom Burke). It is the car they both drove from the moment they fell in love and so it holds countless beautiful memories for her. After their daughter, Shannon, is born, she shares in those memories too. But when the daughter is just an adolescent, Michael succumbs to a sudden illness and dies. The grief caused by his sudden and untimely death haunts her. Although she recovers enough to marry again – this time an amazingly good, mature man – and has her second child, she is unable to let Michael go.
She comes up with an innovative strategy to keep him alive in her life. Whenever she is alone in the car, she imagines that he is there sitting by her side, just as he used to do when he was alive. She keeps talking to him about everything and believes he is there listening to her every word. Years after her second marriage to another man, she tells her former husband, imagining he is sitting there in the car beside her, “There is not a day I wake up or go to sleep without thinking of you. I love you. I miss you.” This is the reason why she is unable to bring herself to sell the forty year old car. More importantly, she can’t bring herself to reveal this to Niall, her second husband.
Grief is a dark, difficult and dangerous emotion. People come up with their own strategies to deal with it.
She eventually sells the car, although she doesn’t want to do it. But soon she senses the resentment she is developing against Niall, who is a marvelous husband and a devoted father. So there can be only one reason for this growing resentment. He kept pointing out the sheer futility of holding on to a car that is not able to serve her any longer but forces her to spend their hard-earned money on endless and utterly useless repairs. One day she blurts out the truth to Niall, who is surprised.
And now that he knows, would he leave her, she asks. Niall replies that he finds nothing wrong in what she has been doing and understands that it is her way of dealing with grief. When people lose someone they love deeply, they struggle to cope with the sorrow that grips them. Some people find it hard to keep the dead alive. They quickly heal and get on with their lives. Some others, like Stephanie, find it impossible to let them die, though they are dead. So they try to keep them alive in whatever way possible. They strive to keep their memories alive. What they do depends on how they cope. There is nothing right or wrong, says Niall.
Does Niall resent the fact that when he is there beside her, she is trying desperately to keep her first husband alive? His response reveals that he is an extraordinarily mature person – quite unlike most men who are possessive or jealous. He says, “Your heart is the biggest place I had ever been in the world. If I get one little part of it, that would be way more than I ever expected in my life.” Deeply touched by his understanding and acceptance, she wonders how she got so lucky twice in her life. And he says, “I am grateful I did once.” A teary-eyed Stephanie, deeply touched, hugs him. Probably at that moment she gains the strength to let go of her first husband, Michael.
After Niall discovers the huge emotional significance the old car holds for his wife, he sells his boat and uses the money to buy back the old car she felt obliged to sell. The final scenes show Stephanie driving her old car again to pick up her first daughter, Shannon, who is coming home from her college for Christmas. They chat and sing as they drive home, as the film ends.
Grief is a dark, difficult and dangerous emotion. People come up with their own strategies to deal with it. What helps them recover is the presence of people in their lives – who don’t ridicule them or find fault with them, who understand their struggle and accept them and love them. When that happens, as Niall says, grief will hopefully fade in the course of time and memories will dim. But love endures.
The film may have a lot to offer to those who are struggling with sorrow and grief after the death of a loved one. How many do you think would be fighting a bitter battle with their sense of loss and grief these days? The grim statistics remind us that about 4.5 million people have died of Covid 19 so far. How many millions, therefore, will have to deal with their sorrow?
“In this time of pandemic and instability, sadness and melancholy have taken on devastating proportions in many people’s lives. This has ramifications that go far beyond its immediate impact of dampening our desire to act and to accomplish: It may even take the form of real mental and physical illnesses.” says Reginaldo Manzotti. This film, written and directed by John Carney, can help a little all these grieving souls fighting their inner darkness in today’s dreary world, devastated by the pandemic.
M.A. Joe Antony, SJ, is Editor of the online magazine, INI (https://inimagazine.org). Former editor of The New Leader and Jivan, he now resides at St Joseph’s College, Trichy, teaching, writing and directing retreats and seminars. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org