My grandmother used to read the obituaries in the paper.
During our visits, I asked why she and my parents read something so sad. My dad’s response was always the same: we’re making sure we’re not listed yet. Grandma would cackle, and mom would sigh, and they’d carry on. By that time, grandpa was already dead for some years, and grandma lived alone on Helminkatu.
Just two kilometers away, across the gardens, is Sirkka-Liisa’s former apartment. Sirkka-Liisa isn’t there anymore and hasn’t been for years. She left one day in 2012 to visit the hospital and never returned. Months later, the apartment sold to director Elina Talvensaari. Nothing thrown away, and with no family to collect it, Talvensaari became the de-facto owner of a life lived. Finding herself unable to part with a person’s last memories, Talvensaari instead sets out to find out who Sirkka-Liisa was in life.
Unfolding like a mystery, Talvensaari uncovers old family trees that reveal a vast lineage filled with notable names in history. People remembered long after they’ve died. At the very bottom is Sirkka-Liisa. As the investigation expands, the clearer her picture becomes. We visit with Talvensaari in a museum dedicated to Sirkka-Liisa’s grandparent’s family home. Letters from relatives long gone fill in gaps of sullen childhood years, and old photographs paint us a portrait of a bygone world. By the time we know where she came from, Talvensaari guides us through the decades filled with hardship and love until the end. Sirkka-Liisa serves in the war, marries the love of her life, and together they travel the world until death parts them.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that we learn who Sirkka-Liisa was; that’s simply not possible with the material at hand. But what Talvensaari has accomplished is the next best thing. Her delicate and intimate portrait is an emotional bridge to the deceased that allows us to share a memory collectively. Does that bring peace to the dead or us? The film doesn’t say. Perhaps both. After all, funerals are for the living, and the women in Sirkka-Liisa’s family (as we find out in letters) all faced the end matter-of-factly. Even in heartbreak, there is a strange admirability in that.
Talvensaari’s film is exceptional. It takes an incredibly sensitive and challenging subject and avoids histrionics and hyperbole. There is a deep melancholy that courses in its veins as we eavesdrop through time. In the beginning, Talvensaari packs away Sirkka-Liisa’s belongings: Her life fits in some plastic bags lined up in a hallway. It’s an image so powerful I had to look away. So too are the visits to the graves which Talvensaari has been able to locate. It is the same graveyard my grandparents have laid to rest just some rows over.
I kept wondering how Sirkka-Liisa’s life would play out had it been a movie. It has all the elements and quiet triumphs straight out of an Aki Kaurismäki story. There is warmth and sorrow as if Ingmar Bergman had made it. Or perhaps an epic flowing through the ages like told by Terence Malick. And I realized that it is, simply put, a life.
Finns are often called cold and morbid due to our attitude regarding life and death. LADY TIME proves otherwise. Eternity doesn’t scare us, for we are here now, and what a gift it is to experience life.