Confronting death, with empathy, in 'Chronic' (R)

In the quietly devastating “Chronic,” Tim Roth plays David, a palliative care worker whose intimacy with death and dying both scares and shames family members who nervously peek in on loved ones they have more or less abandoned. The first English-language film by Michel Franco, the Mexican director of “After Lucia,” a harrowing study of high school bullying, “Chronic” stands back from its characters, which it views with a cold detachment.

Radically unsentimental, it portrays the end of life largely without the emotional concomitants of grief, suffering and solace. Its icy aura of inevitability befits a film whose central character goes from client to client like a polite, expressionless deputy of the Grim Reaper. 

David cares deeply about his patients, but he doesn’t love them in a familial or romantic sense. “Chronic” dramatizes the caregiver’s paradoxical relationships to his charges with an acuity that can make it almost unbearable to watch. David hardly shies away from intimate physical contact with the dying. Several scenes show him tenderly undressing and holding a patient in what looks like an embrace while meticulously bathing and drying the body.

Often observed from behind, David is a soft-spoken and stoop-shouldered, slightly creepy misfit with a dry gallows humor. When the family of John (Michael Cristofer), an architect who suffered a disabling stroke, threatens to sue David for sexual harassment after finding pornography on John’s tablet computer, the movie implies that such accusations are to be expected in a situation where relatives who can’t bear to deal with a patient’s illness project their guilt onto the caregiver.

The film focuses on three patients. Sarah (Rachel Pickup) is an emaciated woman who can neither speak nor walk and who exhibits few indications of sentience. In a bar after her funeral, David converses with a newly engaged young couple who ask if he’s married, and in a deadpan voice, he replies that Sarah, his wife of 21 years, died of AIDS. When asked his name by a clerk while browsing in a bookstore, he answers “John,” and sketches out a biography identical to the architect’s.

The most wrenching scenes belong to Martha (Robin Bartlett), an exhausted cancer patient who after two grueling rounds of chemotherapy refuses a third that might prolong her life a little longer. When she bluntly asks David to help her die, he sympathizes but resists. Or does he? Bartlett’s extraordinary performance is a grim, deeply unsettling portrait of despair whose stoicism conveys an aching nobility.

“Chronic” has been compared to “Amour,” Michael Haneke’s portrait of a devoted elderly Parisian couple whose world shrinks as the wife succumbs to dementia. But the perspective of “Chronic” is more clinical than metaphysical. The movie ends with a sudden, terrible slap in the face that is a final blow to your equilibrium. It is left up to the viewer to decide whether it is a cheap stunt or an ultimate moment of truth. I vote for the latter.

Cast: Tim Roth, Sarah Sutherland, Robin Bartlett, Michael Cristofer.

Writer-director: Michel Franco.

A Monument Releasing release. Running time: 93 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, strong adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Tower Theater.

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