Thursday, June 13, 2013

Open Roads 2013: THE FIRST MAN, Camus' final novel, given great life by Gianni Amelio

Not to dwell on it, but there was a time that any movie from Marco Bellocchio or Gianni Amelio would be given a theatrical release over here. No question. Now, new films from both these masters still languish, awaiting U.S. distribution. Thank god for Open Roads, then -- which came to the close of its seven-day program yesterday evening -- in which the Bellocchio & Amelio films and ten more were screened to great enthusiasm by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Istituto Luce Cinecitta, to give those of us in the tri-state area, at least, the opportunity to see them. The final film for TrustMovies was Amelio's truly extraor-dinary THE FIRST MAN, an adaptation of the last novel by Albert Camus, unfinished at the time of his death in an auto accident.

Signore Amelio, shown at left, has given us a profound experience with this movie, which looks at Algeria and the French who colonized it, during both the teens and 1920s (when our leading character, a successful novelist named Jacques Cormery, was a child) and again at the end of the 1950s, when the French-Algerian War was heating up and Cormery returns to Algeria to visit his aging mother and assess her's and the country's situation. In many ways The First Man  is a French film, about France's history, spoken in French, using mostly French and Algerian actors. Yet is clearly stamped with Amelio's character and preoccupations: his use of stillness and concentration to communicate so well the deepest feelings of the characters. Perhaps the tale needed an outsider -- one with the particular and humane understanding that an Italian like Amelio offers, allowing us to experience Algeria so richly and from several points of view.

The film has been cast extraordinarily well, with the versatile French actor Jacques Gamblin (above) in the lead, as the older Cormery, and a very good young actor, Nino Jouglet (below, and French/Italian, maybe?) as his younger self.

As the mother, clearly of Algerian descent and who never learned to read, Maya Sansa (below) brings a brooding, loving and controlled fierceness to her performance,

while Catherine Sola (below) offers a performance of great solitude and quiet reflection as her older counterpart.

In the role of Jacques' teacher and mentor, Denis Podalydès (below) brings to the tale his gift for making intellect immediate and important.

What the movie captures best, however, is the Algerian experience with the French, via one particular family, the father, a kind of town dog catcher; his son (below, left), who is a school-mate of Jacques; and then that son as an older man, with his own son, who is now in major trouble with the French forces. In this family microcosm, we see the inequality that Jacques, as novelist and public figure now fights against, and which puts the lie to that famous French motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, so far as Algeria is concerned.

Amelio never punches his points home. He allows them to sink in via a literate script, quiet moments and the marvelous faces of the actors on view. (That Algerian son of the son, has but a single scene in the film, but he and his face will probably linger in your memory, to surface whenever thoughts of Algeria come 'round.)

The First Man is perhaps the finest film I've yet seen about the French in Algeria -- up there (but in its own quiet manner) with The Battle of Algiers (ah, another Italian filmmaker who tackled this subject!). It's a keeper, and the fact that it was made two years ago and still has no U.S. release is shameful. The movie joins It Was the Son and Dormant Beauty as the three must-sees of this Open Roads festival. Which unfortunately is now over, so I don't know just how these must-sees even can be seen....

By the way, here's a special shout-out to 
FSLC Programmer Marcela Goglio, who programmed 
this year's series. I admit that I was hesitant at the thought 
of Open Roads without Richard Pena, who retired last year, 
but Ms Goglia has done a superb job. Thank you!

No comments: