TRIBECA 2021: ‘Perfume de Gardenias’ Is a Witty Dark Comedy About Death

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Perfume de Gardenias

Isolation is inherent to the COVID-19 pandemic prohibited us from saying goodbye to our loved ones traditionally and intimately. Most of the time, funerals were impossible and if lucky, families were able to bid farewell to their sick only through a phone call or video. In her feature directorial debut, Perfume de Gardenias, Puerto Rican director Macha Colón creates a therapy of sorts that examines the humanity of our funerary rituals and the importance of preparing for our own death through acceptance of its inevitability.

Isabel (Luz María Rondón) is an elderly woman grieving the recent death of her beloved husband. After arranging a beautiful funeral for him, she catches the eye of Toña (Sharon Riley), the bossy leader of a local church group that organizes funerals for the community. Isabel is invited to work as designer and decorator of caskets, which allows her to find purpose after the loss.

Despite such a bleak premise, the film is lighthearted and witty. Colón offers a bittersweet vision of death with the help of a charming protagonist and a black sense of humor. While the storytelling is unsubtle, the humor is sometimes hidden in plain sight and you might find yourself understanding and laugh at a couple of gags hours after watching the film. In some instances, it’s difficult to know if a scene is being serious or ironic. The comedy is smartly blended into the storytelling to explore how humans seek community, and how that community can help heal wounded souls.

Isabel’s decorations in the funerals are brilliant and offer a unique brand of humor. A dead fisherman gets a giant net and a boat as his casket and a cook gets an elegant set of silverware hanging around her. Each funeral becomes a modern art gallery of sorts; some people even stop by just to take photos. This is inspired by Macha’s experiences involving family members and is not far from real-life cases that occurred in Puerto Rico, such as the now-famous “muerto para’o,” the corpse of a biker being displayed in a motorcycle or a dead lucha libre fan surrounded by a ring and many masks.

And this is how Macha Colón takes a traditionally depressing tradition and turns it into a reason to be happy, to laugh, celebrate art and be with a group of friends. Things get more interesting when this concept is expanded into ideas of murder, euthanasia, and palliative care. The latter topic becomes the beating heart of the third act; it provides a memorable finale through heartwarming character interactions and very emotional scenes.

Colón’s experience working on documentaries shines through in Perfume de Gardenias. Her authentic approach delivers delightful glimpses of everyday life; we see children playing in the street, a friendly reunion in a garage, or a man fixing his car, simple images that are in the background, but look truly real and give color to the neighborhood.

87-year-old Luz Maria Rondón is a joy in the main role; her performance brims with authenticity and optimism, which allows us to easily empathize with her pain and root for her in this new search for purpose. As her neighbor Julia, Blanca Rosa Rovira provides heartfelt moments that help sell the brilliant third act. 

The film does suffer due to overly theatrical acting here and there, as well as lack of subtlety, sketchy editing, and abrupt changes of pace. Also, I could totally see audiences not enjoying the very dark humor that Colón deploys throughout the film.

Perfume de Gardenias is a witty and charming reminder of the importance of goodbyes. We don’t know how death will come, but it will, and even though it can be frightening and difficult to think about it, let alone prepare for it, a process such as this could help us find peace and embrace it as a natural part of the cycle of life.

Perfume de Gardenias had its World Premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival where it will be available to stream on-demand until June 23.

 

Perfume de Gardenias
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10
7/10

TL;DR

Perfume de Gardenias is a witty and charming reminder of the importance of goodbyes. We don’t know how death will come, but it will, and even though it can be frightening and difficult to think about it, let alone prepare for it, a process such as this could help us find peace and embrace it as a natural part of the cycle of life.