'The Miracle of the Little Prince': Film Review

Courtesy of Film Movement
Lost in translation.
8/28/2019

Marjoleine Boonstra's documentary explores how translations of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic novel have helped keep several esoteric languages alive.

Don't be fooled by the title of Dutch filmmaker Marjoleine Boonstra's documentary. Yes, The Miracle of the Little Prince does revolve around Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novel The Little Prince, which has been embraced by readers all over the world since it was published in 1943. But the chief subject matter of the film currently receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at NYC's Film Forum is languages; specifically, the threatened disappearance of many of them. Boonstra works from the fact that the novel has been translated into approximately 375 languages (more, the doc informs us, than any book except the Bible) and explores how many translators have used it to help keep their native tongues alive.

The film is divided into four chapters, each centering on a language that, with one exception, you've probably never heard of. The first example is Tamazight, spoken by the Berber people of North Africa. We're introduced to Lahbib Fouad, who declares his urgent desire to keep the culture of his younger days alive for the next generation. "I have Tamzight running through my veins," he declares of the language he was introduced to by his parents (only Arabic was taught in his school). He was particularly drawn to the novel because its desert setting, and also because of its themes. "I like the style of The Little Prince because it contains philosophical notions," he comments. "It's a metaphor for life."

Author/translator Kerttu Vuolab loves the book for even more personal reasons. Born in Finland, she grew up speaking her native language of Sami. Sent to a boarding school after the tragic drowning death of her beloved younger sister, she was shocked to discover that she would only be allowed to speak Finnish, which she didn't understand. Bullied by her classmates as she struggled to learn a new language, she took solace in The Little Prince, a copy of which was given to her by a friendly librarian.

The doc also spotlights three elderly women in El Salvador who are translating the book into Nawat, an Aztec dialect in imminent danger of dying off due to many years of oppression by the government. Most of the few hundred people who speak it today are in their 80s and 90s, with the youngest being 55. "It's the language of our ancestors," one man declares.

Finally, there are Tibetans Tashi Kyi and Noyontsang Lamokyab, who are living in exile in Paris and have each translated the book. They hope to keep their language alive despite efforts by the Chinese government to suppress it out of existence.

The film delves into some interesting details, such as several of the translators' frustration at having to find equivalent words for some that don't exist in their native language. Unfortunately, the filmmaker's languorous, undeniably visually poetic approach to the material results in dwindling dividends and long stretches of tedium throughout the overlong running time. The individual stories, particularly that of Vuolab, who is seen caring for her elderly mother, are sometimes moving. But the long, silent stretches featuring imagery of the daily lives of the natives and animals of each region quickly prove repetitive, as do the lengthy excerpts of Saint-Exupéry's book read by the translators in their esoteric languages. This is a documentary that will best be appreciated not by fans of The Little Prince but rather by linguists and ethnographers.

Production companies: Pieter van Huijstee Film, Indie Film as
Distributor: Film Movement
Director-director of photography: Marjoleine Boonstra
Screenwriters: Marjoleine Boonstra, Lies Janssen, Pieter van Huijstee
Producer: Pieter van Huijstee
Editor: Menno Boerema
Composers: Harry de Wit, Mari Boine, Svein Schultz

89 minutes