'A Violent Life' ('Une vie violente'): Film Review | Cannes 2017

courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
An ambitious if enigmatic Corsican crime saga.

This sprawling second feature from writer-director Thierry de Peretti ('Apaches') premiered as a special screening in the Cannes’ Critic Week sidebar.

For his second feature, Corsican-born French filmmaker Thierry de Peretti (Apaches) chose to focus on the violent nationalist struggle that wracked his native island throughout the 1990s. It’s an ambitious project that, in its best moments, sits somewhere between Gomorra and The Godfather, following one young man’s rise — and inevitable fall — within the factional wars that took place between rival militant groups, resulting in dozens of deaths and a major police crackdown.

But despite a worthy cause — Corsica’s tumultuous past has rarely been depicted onscreen — and a few standout moments, A Violent Life (Une vie violente) never quite becomes the engaging and sprawling thriller that it should. The plot tends to get muddled in too many details and is not always easy to follow, while its young and ambivalent hero feels emotionally distant and intellectually vague: He’s more like a cipher than a free-thinking character, even if newcomer Jean Michelangeli (who looks like a Corsican Andrew Garfield) offers up a strong performance, as do the other unknown cast members. If his film doesn't always work, de Peretti certainly deserves credit for bringing so much local flavor to the table, capturing the essence of a place that, while technically part of France and only a 90-minute flight from Paris, often feels like a distant land.

As a few opening title cards explain, the FLNC (National Liberation Front of Corsica) began its fight in the 1970s, claiming independence from a French mother country that treated it more like a colony than a free state. But by the ‘90s the armed resistance had split into two divisions engaged in a lethal turf war, while the mafia’s increasing grip on the island made it hard for the FLNC to engage in its Marxist-style politics.

The script (by de Peretti and Guillaume Breaud) picks up in 2001 with 20-something militant Stephane (Michelangeli) hiding out in a Paris apartment. When his best friend Christophe (Henri-Noel Tabary) is killed back in Corsica, Stephane returns to his homeland to attend the funeral. Sporting a bulletproof vest and equipped with several handguns, he’s turned into a moving target but refuses to run away this time, at which point the film flashes back to explain how he got there in the first place.

The opening reel offers a good introduction to de Peretti’s method: The sequence where Christophe and an associate are executed by a rival gang is depicted in one long shot that reveals the killing from an eerie distance. And when Stephane arrives back on the island after his retreat, the contrast between the two places is enhanced by Claire Mathon’s superb cinematography, which brings out the white-hot textures of Bastia and its surrounding landscape compared to the sleepy greyness of Paris.

Stephane’s return to his terroir recalls Michael Corleone’s trip to Sicily in The Godfather, and A Violent Life’s greatest strength is in portraying the very unique social and cultural climate of Corsica — a land that has one foot stuck in Italy, another in France, and a heart deeply embedded in its own folkloric history. When characters in the film speak, their French is not always easy to decipher through such thick local accents, while a few Corsican words are often tossed in for good measure. And when the characters sing — as does happen in one very Coppola-esque wedding sequence — they proudly belt out their island’s national anthem with pride and a few tears.

Yet even if the film’s atmosphere goes a long way, Stephane, who we see rise up from unlikely criminal to the main henchman of militant figurehead, Francois (Dominique Colombani), is less persuasive. At first Stephane is shown to be a quiet bookworm, but he all too quickly becomes transformed after a short stint in prison, heading up a hit squad composed of Christophe and their rowdy childhood friends. The gang mostly attacks local property held by foreigners (i.e. non-Corsicans), setting off bombs in empty vacation homes, though as their movement begins to fraction they wind up targeting their fellow nationalists as well.

There’s so much going on in A Violent Life that it’s difficult to follow the who’s, what’s and why’s of the plot, while de Peretti seems to know his material so well that he’s unable make it clear for the rest of us. A few memorable scenes offer up some perspective, such as one where Stephane’s mother (Marie-Pierre Nouveau) converses with friends who have all lost their boys in the violent conflict. But rather than gaining in suspense and intensity, the story remains slightly opaque and often at arm’s length, as if the characters are living by codes only they can understand. If the beauty of the film, as well as its density, manage to reveal anything in the end, it's perhaps that Stephane and the nationalists were right all along: Corsica is truly its own country.

Production companies: Les Films Velvet, Stanley White
Cast: Jean Michelangeli, Henri-Noel Tabary, Cedric Appietto, Marie-Pierre Nouveau, Delia Sepulcre-Nativi
Director: Thierry de Peretti
Screenwriters: Thierry de Peretti, Guillaume Breaud
Producer: Frederic Jouve
Director of photography: Claire Mathon
Production designer: Toma Baqueni
Costume designer: Racher Raoult
Editor: Marion Monnier
Casting director: Julie Alione
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Sales: Pyramide International

In French, Corsican
107 minutes