Primo Levi's Journey
Blame It on Fidel
IFC First Take
The very name of Primo Levi stops the heart. Affection then floods in, because, of all Holocaust survivors, he is among the closest--through his books, his darkly humane books. When Irving Howe reviewed one of Levi's books, the last line of that review was "What is the Italian for mensch?" Many of us shared the question.
Levi was liberated from Auschwitz in January 1945 and, with some other Italians, headed for home. No transportation was provided, and it took more than eight months, with wanderings toward and away from Italy, before he reached his home city, Turin. Years later, he wrote an account of this journey, called in Italy La Tregua (The Truce), because those eight months seemed like an interlude in the world's growlings, between the end of World War II and whatever was coming next. The book was published here as The Reawakening. Just to twist matters further, when Francesco Rosi made a film of it in 1997, he went back to The Truce as his title.
Rosi's film was fiction, with John Turturro as Levi, and, earnest though it was, it never reached the essential gravitas. Now, on the twentieth anniversary of Levi's death, an Italian film-maker named Davide Ferrario presents Primo Levi's Journey. This is not a version, in fiction or otherwise, of Levi: it is the chronicle of a journey made by Ferrario and his co-screenwriter Marco Belpoliti as they followed, figuratively, Levi's footsteps from Auschwitz to Turin. They mean to show us, as far as is tenable, the Europe that today supplants the one through which the Auschwitz survivor made his way. The intent is unavoidably ironic, and in considerable measure it succeeds.
The languages are those of the countries through which the film moves, but there are frequent passages of Levi's text in English, read quite decently by Chris Cooper. The film is muzzied slightly by some sequences that were not made in the year when the film was shot (2005); on the other hand, it is bolstered by some archival footage done when Levi re- visited Auschwitz, footage that is silently eloquent.
The Europe that Ferrario visits is for the most part one that we know about, but it is seen here through a latter-day Levi prism. The steel mill at Nowa Huta outside Krakow, built proudly by the communists and now abandoned, is toured with the Polish director Andrzej Wajda as guide for these film-makers. In L'viv we attend the funeral of a Ukrainian musician who was murdered by a Russian mob. The local KGB of Belarus are nervous about Ferrario's filming, and they have to be soothed. The city of Prypiat as we see it is empty and haunted, lying as it does in the Chernobyl zone. In Munich (Ferrario and friend are faithful to Levi's circuitous route) the neo-Nazis whom we meet are sweetly reasonable.
Some stretches of the journey are pleasant, even happy; as for the rest, we must remember that Ferrario presumably made choices to support his shadowy view. Still, at the last the film exemplifies what Levi said when he and his friends left a people who had hated them: "We climbed into our trucks with heavy hearts. We had felt no joy in seeing Vienna undone and the Germans broken, but rather anguish: not compassion, but a larger anguish, which was mixed up with our own misery, with the heavy, threatening sensation of an irreparable and definitive evil ... the seed of future harm." This sensation apparently continued to haunt him until 1987, when he rid himself of it.
The daughters of two famous film figures are involved in Blame It on Fidel, and they acquit themselves so well that they stifle the idea of nepotism before it can yelp. Certainly their fathers' fame must have helped them get their jobs, but once there, they must have made everyone glad of it.
Julie Gavras (daughter of Costa-Gavras), along with some collaborators, adapted the screenplay from a novel by Domitilla Calamai, which she then directed. This is Gavras's first feature, and--not surprisingly, considering her paternity--it is political. The setting is not Cuba but France in the early 1970s, and the film is about the odd effect that Fidel's communism had on a child there. Julie Depardieu (daughter of Gerard) plays the mother of two children: Anna, a girl of about nine, and her brother Franois, about four. Depardieu never fades from the story, she is always vital and true, but the real--and unique--subject is her daughter. It would be canted to say that we experience those politically freighted years through a child's eyes: we know what we are hearing when such names as Franco and Allende come up. Yet Anna's dilemmas are central.
Anna, who loves the way she lives and who adores her very Catholic school, is soon surrounded by an ideological swirl. Depardieu's Spanish husband, played by Stefano Accorsi, is a lawyer in Paris who has a sister in Spain. She is an anti-Franco communist, and, with her child, she takes refuge in France with her brother. Her condition and the fate of her communist husband have a radicalizing effect on Accorsi. But the leftist atmosphere of the home is tempered by the housekeeper, a Cuban woman who was made a refugee by Castro (hence the title).In the midst of all this militancy is Anna.
She is played by Nina Kervel, who is, even after one has seen many decades of incredible performances by children, astonishing. The film lives through her. Gavras very quickly establishes that she directs with a power of kinesis, a conviction that motion is the core of motion pictures even when little is literally moving; but she is never more fertile and admirable than in her work with Kervel. Astonishing acting by children is so common that I almost subscribe, in acting terms at least, to J.D. Salinger's view that childhood is prime and adulthood diminishes. Anna's little brother (Benjamin Feuillet) hasn't much to do except to forget that he is in front of a camera and to tell us frequently that he is hungry. But Kervel has shades of feeling, of hurt, of secret triumph and defeat, that are beautifully accomplished. All praise to Gavras for her work in general; but her collaboration with Kervel is entrancing.
As for Anna's Catholic school, at first her parents merely ask that she be excused from divinity class; ultimately, they move her to a secular school. In the last shot, just symbolic enough, Anna is standing alone in the busy yard of her new school and at last is invited by some children to join a dancing group. I'm not sure if we are intended at last to praise Fidel for Anna's union with others, but nonetheless this moment is a portent of a life more integrated than her lately divided one.
Paris again, but quite differently. In Gavras's film it is not much more than the place where much of the picture happens. The title of Dans Paris (literally "In Paris") explains but also misleads. This is not another valentine to that city.
The picture was written and directed by Christophe Honore, the fourth of five films he has made. He has also written novels, which I don't know but which--if they resemble Dans Paris--would have to be tagged postmodern. Traditional narrative or dramatic structure is carefully avoided here. Honore implicitly laughs at it. Like a few other French directors, he has simply chosen some characters he thinks are interesting and spends some time with them.
Jonathan and Paul are two brothers in their twenties. They live with their divorced father, who frets and fusses over them. Jonathan is a student when he remembers to go to classes, attractive, high-flown, calmly carefree. Paul, temperamentally opposite, has just broken up with his girlfriend and has returned home in order to be accommodatingly depressed. (A family suicide, before the film begins, has primed him for trouble.) Paul retreats to bed; Jonathan ventures into a number of beds. Their mother, herself not quite retired sexually, visits them to see if she can help. Not much.
To say that there is no story is a truthful exaggeration. A number of incidents occur--many of them eventually comic. For instance, one night Paul throws himself into the Seine and is rather surprised the next morning to find himself home in bed. Clever montage, sometimes interweaving the past with the present, helps greatly to give the film a texture without any structure.
Possibly Honore's intent was to make a film about Paris that rootedly takes place there but avoids the sentimentalities in most such films. Instead, he displays his cinematic funambulism, which keeps us watching even while the nanny buried in us clucks at his daring. He is greatly helped by his two leading actors. Louis Garrel, a good-looking charmer, makes Jonathan one of those irritatingly fascinating hedonists. Romain Duris (who subsequently played the title role in Moliere) gives us a depressive whose affliction is like his home.
One not quite secondary matter in Honore's film stands out. As in most foreign films, most of the characters smoke--some of them incessantly, lighting new cigarettes from butts. For an American viewer, this smoking almost seems aggressive. We can assume that it exists in the society being portrayed, that it is not invented for the film, but because of America's legal stance about smoking (which is quickly becoming the stance of a surprising number of other countries, too), cigarettes in films can no longer be merely incidental. Quite apart from the health issues, which are indisputable, the cigarettes seem defiant. The characters seem to be taking risks as they damn well choose, whatever others might say. In Gavras's film, set in the 1970s, the smoking is simply normal. Not here. It gibes at us.
By Stanley Kauffman