Javier Bardem has a faraway look in his eyes in director Sally Potter’s “The Roads Not Taken”, and it’s not because he’s trying to block out the elevated line outside the window of his shabby Queens apartment.
Bardem’s character Leo, in the Berlinale competition film, is a former novelist suffering from early-onset dementia. He lies in bed staring at the ceiling, mumbles monosyllabic responses to questions and has trouble dealing with basic functions like going to the toilet.
But at any given time, behind those faraway eyes, he may be mentally tripping on his own version of a Homeric odyssey — inspired directly at times by the Greek myth.
He asks repeatedly about the fate of a beloved dog called Nestor, which is the name of one of the kings in the Homeric legend. He has memories of an encounter with sirens, in the form of party girls on a yacht, who almost lured him to his death in the waters off a Greek island.
He was on the island to try to finish a novel about a man who was 20 years away from home — the same amount of time Odysseus spent away from Ithaca when he left to fight the Trojan War.
But most of all he is haunted by memories from his failed first marriage in Mexico, to his childhood sweetheart Dolores, played by Selma Hayek, and to the son they lost to a hit-and-run driver, for which Leo blames himself.
Potter, who directed “The Party” and “Orlando”, said she was inspired to make the film because her own brother fell victim to dementia. She said Leo’s visions of himself in Mexico or on the Greek island were intended to show that what goes on in people’s minds, even those suffering from dementia, may not be what we think.
“My brother unfortunately had a form of young-onset dementia and I cared for him in the two years before he died. and I learned an enormous amount by being with him about how the mind works,” Potter said at a press conference
“And I found myself wondering, ‘Where is he going when he seems so far away?’ And so this story after he died began to form…that sometimes hidden inside what seems something very tragic might be a secret kind of time travel, space travel, memory travel or all kinds of interesting states of mind.”
Elle Fanning plays Molly, Leo’s daughter by his second marriage, who intervenes in her declining father’s life to take him to the dentist and to an eye examination, jeopardising her own career in the process. Fanning, who last worked with Potter when she was 13, said she had leapt at the chance to work with the Spanish actor.
“I’d never met him before and obviously, you know, he’s Javier Bardem, like … that was something, that him being a part of it for me was like, ‘Oh, wow, to be on screen with him’,” she said.
Bardem and Fanning both said it had been important that they’d been able to develop a level of trust in one another before portraying a highly charged emotional relationship in the course of a four-day shoot.
“It’s true that when I was playing the father I was worried to get into a place where I cannot control myself. that’s the whole thing, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Bardem said.
But Fanning said she and Bardem had bonded one day in rehearsals when she was feeling unwell, he got her a soft drink and they talked about near-death experiences.
“We were already kind of there with each other, almost feeling like two souls….we were very much in our roles at the onset,” she said.
The Berlinale ends on Saturday with the awards to the main competition films, and in other festival categories.
By Michael Roddy