The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is something very unusual indeed: a sequel to an unexpected hit that is actually redefining expectations of who will go to the cinema. Studios are getting used to the idea that as we are living longer, there is an audience that wants to be catered to—but not patronized. The film is about English retirees living in a character-filled old hotel in India, renewed in their appreciation for life itself. The film’s loveliest line, “There’s no present like the time,” contains huge comfort—the unexamined miracle of a day may be the richest untapped seam of nature, and every single one of us gets the chance to examine it. Just think about it—a whole life cycle, in one 24-hour period. In every 24-hour period. The night brings closure and rest, the mind allowed to settle into the wisdom and integration of dreams.
The dawn breaks open unto something entirely new—a day that has never been lived before, with possibility for love and healing and creation. And when the work and play of the day are done, another natural ebb into quietness and renewal is right there waiting. You can do a million things with a day, many of them without even moving. Even just to catalog all the shifts in color presenting themselves through the dome of sky above us would be an extraordinary gift. Martin Luther famously said, “If I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” The characters living in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are doing something similar, and they are a gift to audiences of any age, because they remind us that time can either be like sand slipping through fingers, or an outlandishly generous gift that keeps on giving, if we don’t try to hold too tightly.
If you want to be tuned into the cinematic lessons of characters looking back from the perspective of aged maturity, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is just the most popular current version (and while it’s charming, it’s also a little too slickly made to feel quite real). There are treasures to be found in many other films about older people. One of my favorites is Make Way for Tomorrow, in which a Depression-era couple find their children the first generation in history who did not expect to look after their parents. It’s one of the most moving stories (Orson Welles called it “the saddest film ever made”), but the portrayal of a long life lived in love is unmatched. In Ikiru, a masterpiece from the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, a bureaucrat decides to build a children’s playground after receiving a terminal diagnosis. In dying, he teaches us how to live. After Life, another Japanese work of uncommon humanity, takes as its subject how our memories—and the story we tell ourselves about them—determine the shape of our lives today. And perhaps most immediately powerful is Czech director Jiří Menzel’s unique One Moment, in which footage from the films of one actor, Rudolf Hrušínský, is cut together to reveal the movement of a life from youth to nearing the threshold, in just ten minutes. You can watch it here, and be reminded of the gift of time.
One of the sweetest things about the Exotic films is how they cross boundaries—the characters might not have been friends in England, but being thrust together as outsiders has helped them transcend the petty exclusivities of class and education. Common humanity emerges, as it usually does in such settings. People find an echo in the wound or celebration that another person is experiencing, and the potential for shared burdens and mutual rejoicing comes out of its shell into the public reality that it was always meant to be. Community exists when people let other people in. This is not just true in fiction, of course—community is happening at movie theaters screening The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And outside the theater, our longer life spans mean the young get to experience more of the gift of the wisdom of elders, and the old get more opportunities to figure out what the gift really is. The contemplative activist Richard Rohr calls the second half of life “falling upward,” reimagining it as an invitation to grow—not fade—into the light. The path to healing the world will always invite the dignity and gifts of elders to be fully on display, for all of us.