THREE STARS – Insightful, Sensitive
Many people live lives of painful isolation. The causes are many. Some lose loved ones. Some lose love. Some, for a variety of reasons, never experience love to begin with. Living with this isolation and finding our way through the pain is the theme of “Roommates,” directed by Peter Yates. Set within an immigrant family, the experience is centered around Michael (D.B. Sweeney) and his grandfather, Rocky (Peter Falk).
The story begins when Michael, at age 5, experiences the loss of his parents. Alone, Michael’s aunts and uncles debated putting him in an orphanage. Instead, his grandfather, Rocky, takes him into his own home, with the angry retort, “Family takes care of family!”
When Rocky tells Michael he can come and live with him, Michael asks how long he can stay. Rocky responds: “For as long as you need me.” This proves to be a prophetic scene both for Michael’s life and for the movie itself. This commitment becomes the guiding principle of their relationship. Living more as roommates than as grandparent/child, Michael grows into a man in his grandfather’s home.
As the film explores the experiences of Michael and Rocky we find that there are many causes for their isolation. The most painful cause is the death of those we love. The death of Rocky’s parents, the death of Michael’s parents, and the recurring experience of death throughout their lives is well portrayed and universal to the human experience.
How do we cope with death? Rocky whistles. He teaches Michael to whistle and his grandchildren as well. Bereft of love, personal faith, caring community or pastoral care, death isolates Rocky and Michael into an inappropriate and empty whistling response.
But death does isolate. Even for those persons of faith who know life continues after death, death nevertheless isolates us from the loved one who has left us behind.
How do we face that isolation? Rocky chooses to deny his pain by whistling, and never seeks to express his feelings which isolates him from family and friends. Using denial to protect us from our pain also strips us of our connection. This connection with others is experienced as tears and sorrow at their passing. A healthy response is to cry, feel the love and then reach out to other loved ones instead of isolating ourselves.
This lesson is exemplified near the end of the film when Michael, at the maneuvering of Rocky, is taken to the cemetery to not only reconnect with his departed wife, but to reconnect with his children. In pastoral care we know that grief needs to progress through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The healthiest way to assure that this occurs is by the ongoing connection of a person to God, family and worshiping community.
Rocky and Michael had each other. But, as the title of the film portrayed, they were more roommates than soul mates. The detachment of their lives from each other is exemplified professionally in Michael’s attitude as a surgeon. Michael states his fear that if he “cares” for a patient that this will cloud his judgment.
This belief that only objectivity is capable of correct thinking, is countered by the statement of his wife Beth (Julianne Moore) who says that “Bad things don’t happen because you care too much. Bad things happen when you don’t care enough.” Beth’s entrance into the roommate relationship of Michael and Rocky begins to transform both of these men. Coming from her own isolation as the daughter of a controlling mother, Beth teaches them to express their love.
In their isolation, Rocky and Michael had developed a deeply committed, yet emotionally isolating bond. As Beth makes their love explicit they connect in a new and healthier way. In the end Michael only reaches the point where he can tell Rocky that he loves him after he has passed away.
“Roommates” is a film which explores our isolation. It is a moving experience to watch the pain-filled relational growth of Rocky and Michael, but we would have benefited from a deeper spiritual exploration of faith as it impacts the struggles of life.