Allan King's "Dying at Grace" observes with unblinking humanism the dying process of five patients at the Salvation Army's Toronto Grace Health Center. Documaker has extended his favored cinema verite approach to the limits of what can decently be shown on screen, even recording the dying moments of some subjects.

Allan King’s “Dying at Grace” observes with unblinking humanism the dying process of five patients at the Salvation Army’s Toronto Grace Health Center. The vet Canadian documaker has extended his favored cinema verite approach to the limits of what can be decently shown on screen, even recording the dying moments of some subjects. Pic’s utility as a means to make death more familiar, and thus less frightening, is somewhat neutralized by its excessive length and repetitious handling. Viewings will be restricted to quality small-screen outlets, as well as fests with a taste for non-fiction.

King’s commitment to observation without commentary, along with the extensive documenting of day-to-day medical care, makes “Dying at Grace” most comparable to Frederick Wiseman’s institutional docus. King, however, doesn’t take in the entire hospital operation as Wiseman did in “Hospital,” and unlike Wiseman’s typically distanced lensing, King’s point of view is unnervingly close to the patients — sometimes within a few feet of their pained faces.

First hour is devoted to two elderly women with different conditions and attitudes. Joyce Bone remains alone throughout, with nary a visitor. The explanation for this comes well after we’ve been introduced to her, when she tells resident chaplain Major Phyllis Bobbitt how her two children died, and her husband committed suicide. Bone’s eventual, lonely death seems, in this context, to be the passing of a survivor.

Carmela Nardone, an aged Italian immigrant, has family and friends around her, but King is able to extract little information about the woman, who specifically requests no one be at her bedside in her last hours.

King and his hard-working editor Nick Hector cut among three patients in the concluding 90 minutes, all of them underlining the filmmaker’s assertion in the pressbook that the dying are people with distinct stories. The most cogent patient is Eda Simac, and her decline and death in pic’s final images sums up the project’s purpose and perspective. Beset with cancer, Simac appears at one point to be in remission, and even has hopes of leaving the unit and moving into a condo. Her sudden reversal and fade is a stark reminder that death has its own timetable.Bobbitt and the care unit staff emerge as heroes of nearly unimaginable patience, tenderness and deeply Christian faith. Indeed, few films in recent years have so directly depicted the real face of the religion’s tradition of caring. Bedside manner has never been more impressive.

Besides a tendency to repeat similar clinical situations and a seeming reluctance to trim when it would be advantageous, pic’s major flaw is its second-rate video image, whose poor resolution will be less visible on a TV monitor than it is on the bigscreen.

Dying at Grace

Canada

Production

An Allan King Associates presentation. (International sales: Allan King Associates, Toronto.) Produced by Allan King. Executive producer, Kathy Avrich-Johnson. Commissioning editor, Rudy Buttingnol. Directed by Allan King.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Peter Walker; editor, Nick Hector; sound, Jason Milligan; associate producer, Sarah Zammit. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Masters), Sept. 11, 2003. (Also in Vancouver Film Festival.) Running time: 148 MIN.

With

Carmela Nardone, Joyce Bone, Eda Simac, Rick Pollard, Lloyd Greenway, Gordon Henwood, Norman Collins, Marion Morris, Arthur Morris, Major Phyllis Bobbitt, Colette Hegarty, Donna Spaner, Jodi Zaltz-Dubin, Sue Kaul.

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