Le déclin de l’empire français. Films Reviewed: Run, Corbo, The Gate, Far From Men at TIFF14
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
France was once an imperial power, with colonies in Africa, the Americas and Asia. But much of it ended with terror, revolution, rival conquest, or all-out war. A chequered history at best, but one that makes for amazing movies. So this week I’m looking at four gripping historical dramas, all about men facing revolutions, of a sort, in former French colonies. One is set in Algeria in the 1950s, just before the Algerian War, another in Montréal in the turbulent 1960s, a third in Cambodia amidst the bombing and revolution of the 1970s, and a fourth in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, during the crises and war of the 2,000s.
Dir: Philippe Lacôte
A crazed, homeless man dressed in a burlap sack walks into a cathedral in Abidjan. He pulls out a gun and shoots the Prime Minister, pointblank. Who is he? And why did he do it? The film immediately starts on a patchwork of events in the man’s life, forward to the present, back to the past and further still to his childhood.
Run (Abdoul Karim Konaté) is an orphan who wants to apprentice himself to a master. He quietly observes an old man: a master of the stars, of medicine, of rainmaking and the supernatural. Later Run becomes an assistant to a Liberian woman he meets named “Super Gladys”. She is a glamorous performer with red-tipped hair and elaborate clothes, and she’s a big woman. She’s also a professional eater, a “mangeuse”. With Run as her MC, she performs on a stage, shoveling – with both hands! — massive amounts of rice and dripping chicken into her pie-hole. Viewers applaud and pay her for the privilege. (“Ivoirians don’t know the meaning of money” she remarks in her mixture of French and English.)
An ultra-nationalistic movement sweeps the country but Run survives again. He joins a paramilitary gang of thugs who attack foreigners. The gang becomes almost an organized crime faction, but one with great political pull. And still later he meets, Assa, a revolutionary (Isaach De Bankolé), and has to decide where his loyalties really lie.
This is a great look at contemporary Ivoirian history, its ups and its down, as seen through the eyes of an everyman; a man called Run.
Dir: Mathieu Denis
It’s 1966 in Montreal. Jean Corbo (Anthony Therrien) is a third-generation Canadian, a francophone, and the grandson of Italian immigrants who were imprisoned by the RCMP as enemy aliens in WWII. His dad’s a successful Italian-Canadian lawyer (Tony Nardi), a stalwart Liberal Party supporter, his mother Quebecoise. His family is rich – they live in Town of Mount Royal – and he’s sent to a Catholic private school, but he keeps getting kicked out for his political views. He likes jazz (jungle music, his family calls it) and doesn’t feel connected to the Italian community.
Then he has a chance encounter with two “ruffians” leaving pamphlets in the school. He likes what they say… and especially the young woman, Julie, who works as a waitress in a diner.
Who are they? What do they want? It’s the FLQ (Quebec Liberation Front)! They want to overthrow their “colonial” rulers, seize the means of production, and scare away the Anglo oligarchs. They attempt to do this, first with anonymous posters and graffiti, later escalating to actual explosions. It spurred the first flight of nervous Anglos from Quebec. Jean is allowed into the cel, despite his class, and agrees to hide copies of their secret mimeographed publication, La Cognee, under his bed at home. (He’s only sixteen.)
But violence grows and people are killed. Jean, Julie and others wonder, is it worth dying for? Or killing for? Corbo is an fascinating look at the genesis of the FLQ by a first time director, retelling the true events of the summer of ‘66. Anthony Therrien portrays a passionate but confused 16-year-old, in deeper than he knows. He’s excellent, and so is this movie.
The Gate (Le temps des aveux)
Dir: Régis Wargnier
François Bizot (Raphaël Personnaz: Quai d’Orsay) is a French ethnologist living in the former colony of Cambodia. He is married to a Cambodian woman, has a daughter and speaks fluent Khmer. He collects material from Buddhist monasteries for safekeeping as the US war in Vietnam starts spreading to Cambodia and Laos. He embarks on a trip to a “dangerous area” beyond Angkor Wat, with his assistant and a young artist who asks to ride with them.
But they are captured by Khmer Rouge rebels led by Duch (Phoeung Kompheak). He is put in irons, nailed to the ground by child soldiers. He must confess to being a spy for the Americans. But he is French, he protests, not American. I am neutral, he insists. Spies must confess their crimes (after which they are executed) but how can he confess to a crime he didn’t commit. So Bizot and Duch enter a prolongued period of discussion. Both appear rational.
Ironically, Bizot turns to Buddhist scriptures for inspiration, while Duch quotes French political philosophers like Vigny. Bizot os Jesus-like, bearded and dressed in austere black cotton. Will he and his friends ever escape the torture-filled prison camp?
The film continues until the apocalyptic mayhem of the fall of Phnom Penh, and the closure of the French Embassy. Unspoken is the mass murder, the Killing Fields, that would follow. Though selective in its historical blame (the film doesn’t deal with things like the US bombing of Cambodia or earlier French crimes in Indochina) It’s still an exciting and breathtaking (though darkly beautiful) look at the last days of Europeans in Cambodia.
Far From Men (Loin des homme)
Dir: David Oelhoffen (Based on a story by Albert Camus)
It’s 1954. Daru (Viggo Mortensen) is a school teacher in an isolated village. The map on the wall says France, but this is Algeria and the students are all Algerian. (Algeria was a French colony from the early 19th century, and fully annexed by France in 1948. It regained independence in 1962, after a harsh, protracted war with France.) He is ordered to take the prisoner Mohammed (Reda Kateb) — an accused murderer — to appear before a French judge in a distant city. He refuses at first, but realizes he’s the only one stopping the lynch mobs, both pied noir and Algerian, from killing him. He urges him to escape and is angered when he insists on facing French justice. Why would any man willingly give up his freedom? Daru wonders. (Though he was born and raised in Algeria, Daru feels apart from both the French and the Arabs.)
So he agrees to accompany the accused on his journey on foot. they set off on a two-day journey. And on the way they both reveal truths about themselves, their desires and regrets. This movie is a classic study in existentialism set at the dawn of the Algerian War. But it’s also a classic Western. Their trip is filled with posses, soldiers — both French and rebel — horsemen, rifles, cliffs, ridges, deserts, and saloons. Even the background music is by Nick Cave (with Warren Ellis) the Sergio Leone of modern-day oaters. Camus meets the old west? An odd combination. But it works.
Run, Corbo, The Gate, and Far From Men are all playing at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for details.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com