Reaching Out Beyond the Grave

Astrid Der-Balian at the grave of her father in the touching documentary
Astrid Der-Balian at the grave of her father in the touching documentary "Forever," set at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. (First Run/icarus Films)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007

"Forever" proves once and for all there is life after death, though not necessarily for the dead.

We see that postmortem vitality among the living, the ones who come to honor the departed at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The memorial park is best known as the final resting place for the artistically famous, including Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Frédéric Chopin and Jim Morrison. But the graveyard is also filled with lesser-knowns, whose passing is marked by headstones ranging from ornate and well-tended to faded and almost keeling over.

Heddy Honigmann, a Peruvian-born Dutch filmmaker whose documentaries frequently turn on-camera interviews into meditationally affecting moments, does the same again. In this understated, touching documentary, people reach out to the abstract, embracing their memories or -- in the case of those coming to see the graves of the famous -- finding some kind of closure or affirmation.

"Dearest Oscar," begins one letter lying atop Wilde's grave, "At last we meet on a sunny day at the cemetery gates." It is signed by "Werner" and "Lisa."

There are the travelers from Slovenia who admit they never read the works of Proust but have come simply to pay their respects to him. There is the woman of indeterminate nationality, carrying a pink rose and a cemetery map, who approaches Honigmann and asks her in heavily accented English, "Jim Morrison?"

We get a deeper sense of personal connection from Yoshino Kimura, a young concert pianist whose reverence for Chopin and her departed father -- a dedicated Chopin fan -- are so interlinked that she's compelled to visit the composer's grave. We are treated to her beautiful musical interpretations of Chopin's "Nocturne No. 8" and "Fantaisie Impromptu," Op. 66, and if music ever helped to underscore a spiritual connection, this is it.

Among those who do not come for the famous is a Spanish woman who visits her husband's resting place and ends up talking to Honigmann about Gen. Francisco Franco's brutal regime -- the reason she left her homeland 60 years before. The atrocities she witnessed in Spain have stopped her belief in God, she says.

There is also Reza Khoddam, a cabdriver and singer, who regularly visits the tomb of Persian writer Sadegh Hedayat. He keep in touch with his roots by singing Iranian classical music and insists he is not warmed up enough to perform now -- but moments later, he does. And we realize how, in this place, the spiritual becomes more important than worries about vocal intonation.

"What are you doing in Paris?" Honigmann asks Khoddam.

"Je vie," he replies. "I'm living."

At Père-Lachaise, a statement like that resonates with surprising power.

Forever (95 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated, and contains emotionally intense anecdotes. Some French with subtitles.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company