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Bill Nighy in "Living" (2022).
Review Film

Broken Beggars

Gerard Brungardt

Living, 2022. Directed by Oliver Hermanus.

“The real protagonist of history is the beggar.”[1] In sharing this insight, Luigi Giussani underscores that real significance lies in the connection and encounter between individuals in their mutual humility, need, and search for fulfillment.

Living (2022) is a film adapted from Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), itself inspired by Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Like its predecessors, the movie explores a middle-aged bureaucrat’s reaction to his terminal diagnosis (Mr. Williams portrayed by Bill Nighy in a Best Actor Oscar-nominated performance) as he struggles to discern if he has lived a meaningful life and, if not, what he needs to do to correct things. We will see that it is only through an attitude of vulnerability and humility—that of the beggar—that the other is lead to response to these needs.

A central plot element involves a group of women petitioning the Department of Public Works (in which Williams is a department head) to build a playground in their neighborhood. The first and driving encounter then, is that between these mothers and their children. Although never shown in the film, one can readily imagine the children whining “I’m bored!,” “What can we play?,” “I’m not having any fun!,” in their own inimitable way of expressing the needs of their hearts. At the same time their mothers look out their windows and see the abandoned lot that would serve much better as a playground—both for the kids to play in the fresh air and for the moms to have a place to be together.

The encounter between the moms and the various public works departments and bureaucrats highlights their deep humility and need as they search for a way to get the park built. This leads to some humorous moments along the way, particularly as the new member of the office escorts the women through the bureaucratic maze. Their file ends up back in Williams’s office where he places it in a stack that is going nowhere, intoning “We can keep it here … there’s no harm.” In both these instances, the failure of true encounter—and thus a failure to move forward—is virtually guaranteed by keeping the beggars lost (in a maze) and out of sight (at the bottom of the pile). Without the connection of a human encounter, one does not sense the other’s heart and a human, personal advancement does not result.

In approaching the other as a beggar—putting on full display our needs, desires, and weaknesses—we give them the gift of insight into not only our heart, but their own needs, desires, and weaknesses.

Williams’s learning of his terminal diagnosis provokes an existential crisis. After a night out on the town—which does nothing to address his search for meaning—he runs into Margaret, a young lady who has recently resigned from his office. Even though she had been working with him for over a year, they only now begin to develop a human relationship. The lack of humanity of their previous relationship is illustrated by her nickname for him, “Mr. Zombie.” Williams shows docility and humility as he realizes Margaret may very well have something to teach him. He wishes he could “be alive like [Margaret] for one day.” Through his encounter with Margaret’s joy and transparency, Williams learns the lessons of a true protagonist.

In a subsequent encounter with Margaret, after a full evening, Williams implores her to stay out with him even longer and have a drink. It is in this time together that he has a second key insight. He asks her “I wonder if you ever … watch the children playing … when their mothers call them in … they get contrary. Far better that than to see the child … sitting by himself in a corner not taking part, not happy, not unhappy … I do not wish to be so. When the time comes … when my maker calls me ….” His voice then trails off as he appears to see something new and fresh and leaves with a seemingly renewed sense of meaning and purpose. Williams has connected all of Giussani’s dots and now sees that he must assume the role of the beggar and work contrary to the system he has himself helped to create.

A key failure of humility and vulnerability is that between Williams and his son and daughter-in-law. They are a “prodigal son” couple who are determined that he give them their inheritance but fail to express their own concerns and needs; they fail to be beggars. They also fail to recognize and seek to understand the reason behind Williams’s recent change in demeanor and behavior, misjudging this as his having an affair with Margaret. Williams for his part finds himself unable to share his terminal diagnosis with them.

As the movie unfolds, Williams returns to the public works department on a mission to get the playground built. Through a series of encounters showcasing Nighy at the top of his acting game, Williams personally goes around with the women to each department and begs, humbling and demeaning himself as he seeks the cooperation of his bureaucratic colleagues. Particularly moving is when Nighy’s own crippled hands come into view as he reaches out to the various staff members, shaking their hands and expressing his gratitude. The brokenness of the beggar is on full display.

A final instance of Williams’s pleading is in his encounter with Sir James, the overall head of public works. His request denied, Williams, in a clear breach of (unwritten) protocol, approaches Sir James and begs him to reconsider “… give it one more week. What harm can it do?” echoing his own “there’s no harm” when setting the mom’s file aside. Sir James has come across throughout the movie as distant and in the dark—exactly how Giussani describes the person who, once finding himself in the embrace of mercy, cannot oppose or object without abandoning himself and his own good.[2] Sir James’s assent to Williams’s proposal confirms Giussani’s insights.

In approaching the other as a beggar—putting on full display our needs, desires, and weaknesses—we give them the gift of insight into not only our heart, but their own needs, desires, and weaknesses. This affords them the means to change their heart, actions, and behaviors. The movie Living showcases a series of such encounters in which the beggar serves as the protagonist towards the betterment of all those he encounters, not only the children, but also the moms and the community, through the humble metaphor of a playground. In this age of distraction, our engagement with the other—our ability to attend with the ear of our heart—may be our most treasured grace.

Gerard Brungardt is a professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita. Under his direction, all medical students who have graduated from KU-Wichita over the past 25 years have read and discussed Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Posted on June 20, 2024.

[1][1] Luigi Giussani, Generating Traces in the History of the World, eds. S. Alberto and J. Prades (McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 2010), xii.

[2] Ibid.

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