Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 24, 2018

Life and Nothing More

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:56 pm

Opening at the Film Forum today, “Life and Nothing More” shares the title of Abbas Kiarostami’s 1992 narrative film about the aftermath of the 1990 earthquake in Iran that cost the lives of 30,000 citizens. Antonio Méndez Esparaza’s film, while likely not an homage to Kiarostami’s masterpiece, shares its compassion for victims but on another fault line, that of the racial and class divide of contemporary Florida.

Using neorealist conventions heightened by a very gifted non-professional cast, the story is defined by the constraints imposed by capitalist society on a single mother working as a waitress, her troubled 14-year old son, and three year old daughter. Fifty years ago, when I was working as a welfare worker in Harlem, I sat by the side of a 28-year old mother of four in her hospital bed trying to convince her stay in bed since doctors warned that if she checked herself out, another heart attack would cost her life. Through her sobs, she kept asking why she had to suffer so much. Unlike Job, her suffering and the suffering of the single mom in Esparaza’s powerful film is not a test of their faith by God but the results of wage slavery magnified by racism.

When we first meet Regina, she is working as a waitress at the Red Onion restaurant somewhere in Florida when an African-American man named Robert tries to strike up a friendly conversation with her. Since her husband is doing time for aggravated assault, she is wary of all men. In a subsequent conversation with Robert, she puts him off by saying “fuck all men”. Not willing to take no for an answer, he approaches her again during her break on another day and breaks down her resistance. Since there are so few pleasures in her life, being taken out for dinner and shooting pool with him later is something that she looks forward to. That is the first step in cementing a relationship that finally ends up with him moving in with her and treating the three-year-old with tenderness.

The stumbling block is her son Andrew who is as hostile to adult men as his mother is initially but with less of an incentive to open up to a man he suspects of taking advantage of his mother’s yearning for company. An argument between his mother and Robert in the middle of the night leads to a confrontation in which Andrew pulls out a gravity knife with a warning to Robert to stand down. Fed up with lover and son alike, Regina throws both men out—at least for the evening.

All of these people are living on the knife’s edge. A loss of a job, an unplanned pregnancy or an arrest can push them into a bottomless crevice that is social in nature rather than geological as was the case in Iran in 1990. In a high school class on “Hedda Gabler”, my teacher Fred Madeo, a leftist who used to write letters to the Guardian Newsweekly, told us that when we see a pistol in the first act, a seed is planted in our minds to expect that pistol to be fired before the play has ended. The gravity knife in “Life and Nothing More” plays the same role.

The authenticity of “Life and Nothing More” is astonishing. It has a documentary-like matter of factness that serves the narrative arc. Given the flammable nature of the social relations in the world occupied by the characters, a spark can set off a conflagration at any minute. It is reminder that if the anger and frustration of Black America ever gets turned at its real enemies, the class struggle of the future will make the sixties look like child’s play.

Early in the film, Regina is out in the parking lot with two other waitresses, one white and the other Black, taking a cigarette break and discussing the 2016 elections. They agree with each other that whoever is elected, their lives won’t change.

Let me conclude with the director’s compelling statement in the press notes, worthy of citation in its totality:

Cesare Zavattini (Bicycle Thieves, Rome, Open City), the father of neorealism and perhaps its most important writer, expressed the following in his 1952 “Some Ideas on the Cinema” interview:

The most important characteristic of neorealism is to realize that the necessity of the ‘story’ was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. It has now been accepted that reality is hugely rich, and that to be able to look directly at it is enough. The artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.

In my film Life and Nothing More, with all major roles played by non-professional actors, we aimed to follow those principles and give a voice to those in desperate circumstances. It is a philosophy employed in my previous film, Aquí y Allá, and one I am again devoted to exploring. Their sole presence on screen is an act of political resistance. With each of their actions, or with all of their actions, they shout, whisper and cry: “We are here. This is our life and who we are.”

Likewise the script was inspired by extensive interviews and conversations with individuals, similar to those portrayed in the film. In addition, we established an ongoing dialogue with local judges, public defenders, educational and counseling professionals, as well as other key personnel involved in the legal system. While it is a fictional narrative, the film is as true to life as possible thanks to their collective stories.

The film has changed our lives and understanding of the world around us, and it has been a rewarding and touching journey; we hope it will change other people’s perspectives as well. I make films to understand realities unlike my own. I don’t start a film with self- reflection but, instead with curiosity, admiration and a sense of the political nature of film. I am a stranger here in the United States, and a stranger to the world of the film’s characters. I am the guest of my non-professional actors, and they will guide me. It is a privilege for me to be able to watch with the actors how the film will unfold.


  1. Is this film going to be released around the country this winter or spring?

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 25, 2018 @ 1:36 am

  2. Screening info is here: https://www.cafilm.org/lanm/

    Comment by louisproyect — October 25, 2018 @ 1:40 am

  3. thanks!

    have to check the link again to see if the film was come to Sacramento

    from the trailer, the film reminds me of the visual and narrative style of Kore-eda

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 25, 2018 @ 8:18 pm

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