(SCREENED AT THE 2003 LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL.) It sounds like the setup to a bad political joke, but in downtown Los Angeles there is indeed a rest home for aging radicals. It's called Sunset Hall--the "Home for Free-thinking Elders"--and it's probably the only retirement community in the country where you can see "Free Mumia" signs, and where the library includes the collected works of Lenin.Laura Gabbert's documentary zeroes in on two of the more sprightly residents of this singular establishment: Irja, 81; and Lucile, 95. Both of them started young as radicals, and--unlike a lot of their peers--never stopped believing in the old lefty dreams. Much of their commentary on politics then and now is illuminating; when Irja claims she's still agitating for the same ideals she fought for back in the Thirties, it's both a testimony to her spirit and a sad commentary on the failures of the Left. Communism promised everything but ultimately delivered very little of anything.
SUNSET STORY doesn't offer as much historical context as one would like; these gals must have a lot of stories in their heads, and you don't get to hear many of them. Gabbert chose to go for the human-interest angle, and the film really deals less with politics than with the friendship of these old women. Fortunately, they're natural scene-stealers--especially Lucile, who's bitterly funny in the manner of all bright, cynical elders. A Jew, she reminisces ruefully about the anti-Semitism she endured in her youth. ("They said, 'Did you kill Jesus?' I never met Jesus!")
They make for entertaining company; all retirement homes should have an Irja and a Lucile. Whether or not you share their politics, you have to admire people like this, who can retain their minds and their will long after their Biblical allotment of three score and ten years.Not quite as insightful as it should have been, the film works best as a day-in-the-life piece about what it's like to grow old. And that's good enough.