By Christopher Renton
One Day Less is about as far from Hollywood as many viewers will get this year. Not just for the obvious reasons that it was made in Mexico and studios never put much stock in the documentary film market, but because the subject matter and style are antithetical to what would normally be considered entertainment. The film’s pace is as slow as its geriatric subjects and I’d bet dollars to donuts that at least one person will fall asleep during its screening. But for those with enough patience or caffeine to remain conscious, you will be rewarded handsomely with a film of subtle pathos and overwhelming generosity. This simple documentary directed, produced and shot by Dariela Ludlow (the granddaughter of her film’s subjects) is a small wonder. Few films in recent memory have reached for less, but managed to grasp more than this one.
The film is shot primarily during the intervening year between the annual New Year’s celebrations of the Deloya family. Its subjects are that modest family’s aging matriarch and patriarch. Carmen is a loving mother, grandmother, and wife. She is 84. Her husband is 97-years-young Emeterio. The weight of time has slowed Eme’s limbs and speech, but his mind is as sharp as it was in his younger, rebellious years–at one point, he sings a long-ago-memorized verse from the socialist anthem “The Internationale.” Time has been kinder to Carmen’s body, but is exacting its subtle cruelties on her brain: she laments more than once that upon reaching the kitchen she often forgets why she’s there. She rises each morning to freshly squeeze her husband’s life-sustaining orange juice, handwash the laundry, and sort out their many prescriptions. They have been married for over 60 years and have lost none of their playfulness. They kid and kiss one another with enviable affection. They lean on each other both physically and emotionally. She guides him down the stairs and the street to the doctor’s office. She begs him to leave her in a sanatorium and find a new woman. He sweetly refuses. Their unadulterated tenderness and devotion to one another would have become cloying if it wasn’t so genuine. They don’t have much time left, a realization that provides the significance of the film’s title, but they have each other.
Ludlow is an incredibly subtle filmmaker. As we watch this aging couple we can’t help but imagine them in their youth and consider the degree of change their relationship has endured. At one point, she cuts to a young couple waiting for a bus outside Carmen and Eme’s Mexico City apartment. She does not pander by zooming in or holding for too long. Just a flash, a suggestion of what her subjects might once have been. She utilizes close-ups of their weathered hands, interlocked, to underscore the amount of time they’ve passed as husband and wife. Moments like Eme’s farewell to his granddaughter that less astute filmmakers would play up for all their emotional currency remain understated demonstrations of the depth of her subjects’ love for the family they’ve created and the lives they’ve lived.
At times, One Day Less reminded me of early Jarmusch with its purposely purposeless banter. Ludlow did not write this entertaining dialogue, of course, but her ability to capture it and the decision to include the most quotidian of conversations demonstrates her devotion to character over narrative. I was equally struck by her respect for domesticity and the true pace of her grandparents’ daily life. This film is very slow, but if it were more crisply edited it would lose all of its effectiveness. These individuals are old. Their lives, their legs move slowly. It is a long wait each year for the family’s joyful reunion and that tedium is punctuated by moments of subtle comedy and quiet tragedy. The purpose of this film is not patently clear. Did Ludlow simply want to make a film to remember her grandparents by? Or, was she trying to say something more broadly about the inescapable realities of old age? I’m not sure that it matters, in the end. She’s crafted a beautiful little film. One that makes us all hope we choose wisely the people with whom we spend our lives.