The Elderly. 2022.
Directed by Raúl Cerezo & Fernando González Gómez
Written by Cerezo, Rubén Sánchez Trigos, & Javier Trigales
Horror / Sci-fi
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains SPOILERS!
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled.
The Elderly is a terrifying tale about an old man, Manuel (Zorion Eguileor), who starts acting increasingly odd following the suicide of his wife. Manuel goes to live with his son Mario (Gustavo Salmerón) and his daughter-in-law Lena (Irene Anula), as well as his granddaughter Naia (Paula Gallego). Nobody, apart from Naia, listens to Manuel. They all see his behaviour as crazy, indicative of a man who’s gone off the deep end in the wake of his longtime wife’s death. While Madrid’s high temperatures continue to rise, so does Manuel’s erratic behaviour get more worrisome. And all the other elderly around Madrid are affected, too. They seem to understand what’s coming while Mario and his family, as well as anybody else not yet a senior citizen, are left in the midst of a gruesome chaos.
Although The Elderly isn’t subtle about its message, the film doesn’t quite bash us over the head with things, either. Instead the film weaves together a lot of social, economic, and political threads, all of which centre around the threats posed by climate change. The story parallels how we treat the elderly with how we treat the Earth, as Manuel and the other old folks become entranced by an otherworldly force while climate change bears down brutally upon Spain. An additional layer to The Elderly firmly places the blame for the havoc of climate change in the hands of the right wing, using shadows of Spain’s fascist history to paint a vividly horrific picture of what happens when we ignore the cries of the Earth and our elders.From the start the film steeps us in imagery of old age, beginning with a shot at the end of the opening credits lingering on a Francisco Goya painting called Two Old Ones Eating Soup, also known as Two Witches. Not only are the characters in the painting old, the painting was created when Goya himself was in his seventies, largely living in isolation. (There’s more significance to Goya’s painting and his state of mind at the time, but we’ll come back to that.) Once the film gets going, Manuel starts showing signs of what his family believe to be dementia, and though the film’s not entirely told through his POV, we spend a lot of time early in the story understanding how elderly people sometimes feel isolated and alone, even when there are people trying to take care of them.
Naia’s the only character who actually takes time to listen to Manuel talk, and she actually doesn’t bother telling him he’s told a story before until he realises it. She seems to genuinely care about old people, at one point helping a random old woman put her wash on the line. Yet even Naia recognises the tragedy of old age, telling her boyfriend: “Being old‘s gross. Nobody listens to you, they ignore you.” Throughout the film, we also see genuine moments of ageing and the honest difficulties of dealing with it. In one scene, Manuel loses control of his bowels, so Lena gets him in the shower. He starts making her angry with the things he’s saying, perceived by Lena as a product of dementia, and she knocks him over in the shower, beating on him after he says something about her pregnancy. These are uncomfortable moments that can, and do, occasionally happen between elderly folks and their caretakers, especially when the caretakers are family.
Aside from old age, always looming in the background of The Elderly is the “global phenomenon” on the news related to climate change, complete with a temperature check between every so many scenes that shows us the heat is consistently rising throughout the film. Each scene feels and looks sweatier than the last. And with the rising heat comes the rising tension between the old folks becoming hypnotised by something otherworldly and everyone younger than them. On top of the heat, sociopolitical tension is never far from the film’s plot, as we hear about general issues in Spain. When Lena and Mario are arguing over their finances, she mentions how “people are broke” all over the country. This brief mention of hard economic times further helps set the stage for the film’s discussion of fascism—which always rises during times of economic hardship—and its relationship with climate change.
The presence of Goya’s Two Witches painting at the end of the opening credits is also of significance because while Goya was creating this painting, as well as the others known as the Black Paintings, he was deeply disillusioned about sociopolitical developments in Spain during the early 19th century. This alone implies The Elderly is meant to be read politically, not solely environmentally, stressing that climate change has always been a political issue. One scene stands out as the film’s Rosetta Stone: Manuel recounts a story about him and his wife years ago that preceded their first fight as a couple. A man on the street once tried to force Manuel and his wife to return a fascist salute. Manuel says he put his hand up quickly and tried to force his wife to follow suit, but she refused to hold her hand up because she “took orders from nobody.” And so Manuel’s wife kills herself at the start of the film as a method of opting out from the fascism rising alongside the heated climate, whereas Manuel goes right along with this new environmental fascism, so much so he implants a piece of electronics into his chest, right around the heart like the rest of the elderly.
Fascists use issues like climate change to twist the narrative towards their own purposes, often using the ‘blood and soil‘ argument—made popular by the Nazis—to urge the need to protect the local environment against outsiders who only threaten to destroy the local environment. The old folks in The Elderly have, in their vulnerable states and in conjunction with the vulnerable state of the environment, been recruited to the eco-fascism of an otherworldly force seeking to reclaim the natural world from humanity.
The elderly all become part of a different fascist order in the end, and the film does a clever job connecting the rise of climate changes devastating effects to the rise of fascism without being heavy handed. We see it best when Manuel goes from telling his own family “You‘re going to die tomorrow . . . I‘m going to kill you tomorrow” to “If we don‘t work together, we‘ll all die.” He soon reverts back to trying to kill Mario and Lena, as do the other old folk kill anyone who crosses their path; one scene even depicts a creepy old lady murdering a baby. There’s an intriguing sense of eco-fascism in The Elderly after the abandonment of the “If we don‘t work together…” sentiment when it seems the elderly are intent on killing everyone under a certain age rather than enlisting them to join their ranks.
Naia is curiously left alive amidst the bloody carnage, probably because she was the only one who actually listened to Manuel while others saw dementia, and she largely paid attention to old people as demonstrated at different times early in the film. At the same time, Naia’s listening to the elderly here is connected to a descent into fascism. The final thing we see in the film is a massive craft of some kind breaching the clouds, likely the fascist force controlling the elderly, so it doesn’t exactly bode well that Naia’s survived, either; she may have survived, but only to exist in a fascist, environmental hellscape. Those who resist the otherworldly fascism all appear to be killed. The Elderly doesn’t suggest a whole lot of options when it comes to fascism and climate change: either we resist it all, or we lose ourselves and become part of a mindless, destructive force that will only ruin us all eventually anyway.