A little of the absurdist madness of 1960s cinema lives on in “Last Words,” a sort of “Waiting for Goddard” End Times tale about the last people on post-apocalyptic Earth making a movie about themselves.
Based on a novel by Santiago Amigorena, who co-wrote the script with director Jonathan Nossiter (“Signs and Wonders” and the terrific documentary “Mondovino” were his), it’s equal parts bleak and daft.
Because when I say “making a movie” I mean that in the most literal sense. An ancient survivor (Nick Nolte) of the movie-making business, preserving reels of celluloid and the primitive means of projecting it 50 years after the apocalypse, teaches a wandering soul (Kalipha Touray) how to build a motion picture camera. We even see them manufacture the “film” itself, putting “magic” chemicals onto celluloid, perforating the edges by hand, the works.
The Earth is a blasted, dry wasteland covered in post-tsunami (must have been a comet strike) rubble. There’s nothing green left, “rain” water is undrinkable and the only food are the last surviving tin cans.
But as the ways this happened and decades of life before it were caught on what is just “digital dust” since the power grid went away, the old man who goes by “Shakespeare” and who has memories of “the ’60s” and The Sex Pistols — in 2085 — is hellbent on convincing this much younger man to undertake this film project.
Don’t do the math of how old Nolte’s character would have to be. That’s maddening all by itself. And don’t let yourself consider how pointless the notion of documenting and “interviewing” any survivors they come across as they trek to Athens. That’s as pointless as wondering how they’re recording “sound” for these interviews.
It’s as looney as it sounds — as nonsensical as our young Afro-European narrator, who has no name and was born so far after the apocalypse that he has “no learning,” knows “nothing” of how things were were before — and yet keeps narrating specific dates.
“June 20, 2086” or “June 2, 2085” etc. Um, how is he supposed to know that? Even after he’s met the Old Man of the Movies hidden in an ancient cellar in Bologna, Italy, holed up watching Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” or “The Cameraman” or the prehistoric films of the brothers Lumiere he’s preserved, there’s no notion anyone would remember when exactly this is.
The Earth is so depopulated — nothing grows — that the sum total of human knowledge has all but disappeared. Books are around, for the oldest survivors and maybe those like our narrator who “taught myself to read.”
When our narrator tells us “I am the last person on Earth,” we can take him at his word as what he’s relating about “Shakespeare” and their journey to Greece is a flashback from a year or so earlier. Nolte’s character has flashbacks within that flashback that drop a little death and social collapse right-after-it-happened to fill us in.
The reason they’re going to Athens was “a call” that was made, decades before, that told scattered pockets of survivors Greece had greenery and food and even potable water. Was that ever true, or just a myth? The only way to find out…
Greece, it turns out, does have a sort of “’60s commune” with a greenery, plants being nursed back to life, dozens of people ranging in age from their 20s to much older, with the sage Zyberski (Stellan Skarsgård, apparently still in his snowplow pants from “In Order of Disappearance”) and grinning, amorous and aged Balkt (Charlotte Rampling) as their role models.
The commune can feed them, with everyone camped out among the ancient ruins. The newcomers can introduce these survivors to the wonders of the cinema, Eric Idle singing the “Galaxy Song” from “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.”
Those are the most magical scenes of “Last Words,” seeing people rediscover movies the way the first filmgoers did in the late 1890s — touching the screen in wonder at the “people” they see there, laughing at the slapstick, missing the irony of the old Disney cartoon entertaining prison camp inmates scene in “Sullivan’s Travels.”
Filmed in Moroccan wastelands — dressed with rusted hulks of ships and boats washed inland 50 years before — and several sections of ruined cities in Italy, this dystopian wallow in cinematic nostalgia isn’t anybody’s idea of sophisticated science fiction.
So don’t take it as sci-fi. “Waiting for Godot” is our template. But even in an absurdist/existential sense, it’s a muddle.
Still, something brought Skarsgård and Rampling back onto a Nossiter set — both have worked with him before — something beyond the promise of a paid Italian vacation one would hope.
Dystopias have a certain romance to them, the idea of solitude and the bittersweet fatalism of a doom that will be complete if and when these characters die. Tying that to the conceit that celluloid film is “the last chance to leave a living trace of man,” that old movies (and snippets of TV shows) preserved that way are living time capsules, works.
It’s sad to report that the best you can say of the movie surrounding those conceits is that it’s an indulgent downer, not utterly incoherent but a grim journey from hopelessness to pointlessness.
Cast: Nick Nolte, Kalipha Touray, Charlotte Rampling, Alba Rohrwacher and Stellan Skarsgård.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jonathan Nossiter, scripted by Santiago Amigorena and Jonathan Nossiter, based on Amigorena’s novel. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 2:01