In spite of the controversy surrounding Anthony Hopkins’s recent Oscar win for The Father, his performance and the film as a whole draw attention to the ways in which dementia reverberates out from its sufferers to impact the lives of those around them. As I watched the film, Hopkins’s performance as Anthony (a character with whom he shares a first name) immediately drew me into his world—a world in which places might change from moment to moment, or familiar faces could become unfamiliar in an instant. All of the people in Anthony’s life, save one notable exception, exude genuine sympathy for his deteriorating condition and want to do the best for him, even when he refuses to accept their help. And yet early in the film, Anthony’s daughter Anne, with whom he lives, asks a question that would strike any person who knows someone with dementia as insensitive: “Do you remember?”
Even outside of the context of aging and dementia, it’s a question that can suffuse a conversation with tension in an instant. We can probably all recollect a time when a friend, spouse, or co-worker asked us the question (or one similar); a wave of doubt, defensiveness, and guilt can accompany its utterance. Have I forgotten something? Was it important? What have we talked about recently? Our smoldering fears of forgetting are stoked into full flame with this simple question. It strikes at the very core of who we are. Part of what The Father reveals so powerfully is the way in which Anthony’s increasing inability to remember day-to-day events marks the dissolution of his sense of self.
In interviews, Florian Zeller, the film’s writer and director, has discussed how he wanted to put the audience in Anthony’s position, to create a sense of disorientation and confusion as the film’s narrative bounced between familiar and unfamiliar places, while also introducing familiar and unfamiliar people into Anthony’s world. As viewers, we crave an answer to the film’s narrative riddle, hoping that we will be given enough clues to piece together what is “really” happening. But Zeller eschews simple solutions or answers, preferring to draw us into uncertainty and then forcing us to remain there.
The tragedy of The Father is that several opportunities for Anthony to remember in the same way are lost.Why then do the characters surrounding Anthony, his daughter and his carers, ask him “Do you remember?” at all? In my own family, I have seen the way that dementia can send ripples out into the lives of those who care for or interact with someone whose memory is failing them. I remember the first time my son, who must have been six or seven years old at the time, came up to me during a family gathering and whispered into my ear that his great-grandmother kept asking him the same questions over and over again. The whisper and the furtive look that accompanied his revelation belied his understanding, even at that age, that something was wrong. Since then, both of my children know that when we see their great-grandmother, the best practice for them is to answer each of her repeated questions as if she was asking it for the very first time. The fact that my young children quickly could figure out that they needn’t draw attention to their great-grandmother’s short-term memory lapses suggests that Anthony’s carers would be able to draw the same conclusion.
As I re-watched the film, I realized that the question was asked predominantly in the beginning and ending sections of the narrative. The book-ended structure draws out Anthony’s mental decline and his distress. One of the central conundrums for Anthony is whether or not his daughter is planning to move to Paris. Throughout the film his confusion manifests itself as Anne variously claims that she is moving away in one scene, while (seemingly) a few moments later insists she has no such plan at all. This back-and-forth quandary becomes the backdrop for the introduction of the question, when Anne asks Anthony if he remembers that she is going to leave London. While the question’s answer clearly is “no,” Anthony brandishes a tactic that he will employ throughout the film of simply accepting the premise of the statement without getting into whether or not he remembers in the first place.
However, by the end of the film, even this cognitive flourish wanes, and Anthony becomes more like his childhood self. Anne decides to place Anthony in a care facility when she does move to Paris. Finding himself in a strange and unfamiliar room, Anthony asks Anne to explain what is happening and she once again presses him: “Remember? I told you about [the move]…Remember?” But this time, Anthony descends into distress at the thought of his impending isolation. The film then cuts to a subsequent scene, months later, but Anthony still doesn’t realize that Anne has been living abroad for some time. Here again, his nurse leans on the same phrase, “Look, yesterday, this postcard she sent you. We read it together. Don’t you remember?”
What makes this question so distressing is the way in which it forces Anthony to realize that he has forgotten something. In many ways, the realization of forgetting is worse than the forgetting itself. Someone who forgets without later remembrance lives on in happy ignorance, but those who are asked to think back and recollect their lapse in memory must experience the pain of admitting their failure. In the best of circumstances, such a reminder might be uncomfortable, but also welcome as we can then rectify our error. But for Anthony and the many people in similar positions, such a reminder only emphasizes both his brokenness and his inability to fix himself. The common idiom that once was used to chide inappropriate behavior has become Anthony’s reality: he has forgotten himself. To read the film charitably, we might argue that the question’s recurrence is symbolic of Anthony’s struggle with his own awareness of his frailty, rather than an indictment of his caretakers. In either case, The Father compels its viewers to reckon with the possibility that we might one day find ourselves lost in a sea of misconceptions, half-remembered moments, and unfamiliar faces. How do we find safe harbor in such circumstances?
The poet John Donne offers one possible response in his Holy Sonnet 9, which begins with a sense of outrage as the speaker wonders why he should face God’s judgment when, as he sees it, the rest of the natural world will not. But as with many sonnets, this opening premise is challenged midway through the poem, when the speaker pivots: “But who am I, that dare dispute Thee?” The solution to this tension, the poet concludes, is found only in the mingling of his tears and Christ’s blood, forming a flood to “drown . . . my sin’s black memory.” In the final line, the poet finds mercy not in remembrance but rather in asking God “if Thou wilt forget.” For the speaker of Donne’s poem, forgetting (or being forgotten) becomes a refuge from the pain and darkness of the past, something that sparks yearning rather than fear or anxiety.
The notion that God forgets our “misdeeds dark,” as Martin Luther called them, through his forgiveness is suggested by metaphors in scripture, such as the Psalms, where David describes God’s removal of transgression “as far as the east is from the west.” Or in Micah, whose description of God’s casting sin into the “depths of the sea” gives us the concept of the “sea of forgetfulness.” Even in the Gospels, Christ’s exhortation to his followers to “deny” themselves from Matthew 16 has on occasion been translated as an urging for us to “forget about ourselves.” But the kind of forgetting in view in these moments is a far cry from the debilitating loss of self experienced by Anthony and others like him. Moreover, scripture has as many (if not more) passages calling on God to remember his people, not to forget his covenant.
Perhaps the theologian Miroslav Volf phrased the question best: “How can we remember rightly?” After all, the Ten Commandments themselves urge us to remember the Sabbath, and memory forms the foundation for many of the religious practices outlined in scripture—“do this in remembrance of me.” Volf suggests that remembering rightly is integral to “redeeming the past,” which is “nestled in the broader story of God’s restoring of our broken world to wholeness” (44). What The Father draws our attention to, then, is the opportunity that Anthony’s illness gives for others to help him remember well. This is not to say that he will remember perfectly, but that as a human being, he still clings to parts of life that are meaningful to him. Redemption is found not in asking whether or not he remembers details from a recent conversation, but rather in gently taking him for a walk through the park, as his nurse promises to do in the film’s conclusion.
One of the last visits my wife had with her grandmother came during Christmas, and we walked, as we had many times before, into the memory care section of the nursing home, through the key-coded entry that prevented residents from wandering away and getting lost. We sat, along with our children, beside her, but she didn’t really know who we were. Her mind had lost many of the faces of the people who loved her. And yet, when we tried singing a Christmas carol, she broke out into glorious song along with us. In that moment, she remembered rightly, and we all enjoyed a glimpse of the past being redeemed in her singing. The tragedy of The Father is that several opportunities for Anthony to remember in the same way are lost.
Throughout the film, Anthony is obsessed with his watch, on occasion believing it has been stolen when he’s misplaced it. And it’s in this watch that Florian Zeller signals the possibility of redemptive remembering for Anthony. In Hopkins’s gut-wrenching performance of Anthony’s final speech, when he cries out for his mother to come and fetch him, the watch brings calm when nothing else will. Anthony knows where his watch is: “On my wrist. That I do know. For the journey.” Perhaps the journey was one out of London during the Blitz, when Anthony was a child, or perhaps it was some other excursion; whatever it may be, the watch forms part of the foundation for Anthony’s world. Sadly, no one ever asks him about the watch’s importance in a way that would allow him to express these recollections. For those of us who have family or friends in similar situations as Anthony’s, the film reminds us how important it is to make room for good remembering, even in the absence of a good memory.