The Last to See Them Review

For much of Sara Summa’s debut feature The Last To See Them, I questioned why I was watching it. Why should I care about these characters and their trivial day-to-day activities? Why should I sit here watching nothing happen for an hour and a quarter? This is dull.

Then I realised that that’s the point, and suddenly I loved the film.

A thesis film at the prestigious German Film and Television Academy Berlin, The Last To See Them covers – as its title suggests – the last day in the life of a rural Italian family before they’re all murdered. Via onscreen titles, we learn in the film’s first five minutes that this family will be slaughtered in their sleep. That knowledge hangs over the proceedings for the subsequent seventy minutes.

By most standards, The Last To See Them is a boring, inconsequential picture. To call it a family drama would be generous: there’s barely even any drama in there. It’s a quiet day in the life of a farming family: a father worries about his legacy, a mother languishes in depression, a daughter chafes against parental rules; a son works outside. The cast is made up of non-actors, performing non-drama, for a non-intrusive camera. The Last To See Them casts the audience in the title role: we’re the last to see this family, to see them go about their lives, to enact their precious daily rituals, to muse over goals. 

With the knowledge of what’s going to happen, though, all this non-action takes on an eerie, skin-crawling new dimension. When the characters talk about their dreams – or even what they’re going to do tomorrow – we know already that they’ll never achieve those things. As the mother character gazes into the distance in depression, we know she’ll never climb out of that emotional hole. Relationships will never blossom further than they are today. Characters will never grow older. The house will be empty of life by morning.

Only two moments even hint at the film’s horror roots. In one, a boy – clearly a budding psychopath – roughly holds down the family cat, seemingly to see how it reacts. The other comes at the film’s closing, and represents the moment at which the thesis comes together. Sun has set on the property, and things are winding down. A single car hoves into view on the hilly horizon, driving calmly down the driveway to the house. A single shot depicts the driver from behind, observing the house, before the film cuts to black. We don’t see the killer’s face; we don’t hear their voice; we don’t know their motivations or see their actions. All we have to go on are the closing titles, which merely describe how the family is later found. 

When talking about horror movies, we often say that the horror is “left to our imaginations.” Usually, that’s in cases where deaths are depicted in silhouette, or behind a closed door, or with sound while the camera cuts away. The Last To See Them takes that a step further, and truly gives the barest possible hint at horror: a series of one-line text descriptions. There’s no sensationalisation of violence here; no sensationalisation of anything. The family simply lives, and then they’re dead. The arbitrary, unemotional nature of it all – like a god watching lives and deaths with scarcely even curiosity – drives home just how small we are in the big picture. Our joy and sadness is nothing to an outside observer. They come and go like the sun.

The ultimate effect of The Last To See Them is an existentially depressing one. If I question why I should care about these people and their trials and tribulations, why should anyone else care about mine? How would I feel about myself if I were murdered today? Rarely has a film made me question to this degree every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life. Rarely has a film illustrated the insignificance of human existence by paying such intense attention to it. And rarely has a film done all this solely through bookending a family drama with expositional titles. By depicting every languid detail of the day, then coldly, casually announcing the characters’ deaths, the film renders human life meaningless.

Or does it even do that? There’s a reading to be made wherein the meaninglessness of this single day is raised to the height of meaning by the fact it is the characters’ last. Maybe the film is saying nothing people do is important, but maybe it’s saying everything we do is. If something matters to us, it matters to the universe. But then, what happens when you die, and nothing can matter to you anymore? These are the kinds of things you end up thinking about when walking out of The Last To See Them.

Ultimately, Summa attaches no visible emotional significance to any event in her film. In a medium all about directing the audience how to feel, she barely even gives clues; you take out of the film only what you bring into it. I can barely remember what The Last To See Them’s characters were up to in the film. But I still feel the crushing weight of the film as a whole. For this film, both of those statements are marks of success. To feel guilt, shame, insignificance, and numbness is to feel what you’re meant to feel.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Andrew is a creative professional from New Zealand, living in Montreal, with an American accent, which always confuses people.