The First Man: Hong Kong Film Festival Review

Sadness and politics permeate a graceful if underweight screen adaptation of Albert Camus’s final, unfinished novel.

An adaptation of Albert Camus' unfinished autobiographical novel, Italian writer-director Gianni Amelio's film is the winner of a FIPRESCI critics' prize in Toronto.

Italian writer-director Gianni Amelio tackles Albert Camus’s unfinished autobiographical novel, The First Man, in a fluidly constructed if somewhat old-fashioned-looking film whose political interests often seems to outweigh its slight narrative. Filmed in Algeria, with French and Arab dialogue that gives the story an authentic feeling, it suffers from a lack of atmosphere all the same. Amelio’s mastery over the material is never in question, but it’s the incomplete story itself that isn’t very meaty. Quality art house distributors may take a look, particularly in territories where Camus is still of great interest. Elsewhere, this winner of a FIPRESCI critics’ prize in Toronto will glide from festivals to dvd.

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In the months before his fatal automobile accident in 1960, Albert Camus was working on a fictionalized autobiography revisiting his childhood in Algiers. The story seems a good fit for Amelio (The Stolen Children, Lamerica), whose films have always sensitively foregrounded political and social issues while attending to character. Also, Amelio has remarked on the numerous similarities between Camus’s childhood and his own, going so far as to call the film “the autobiography I’ve been wanting to make.”

If so, this is a melancholy portrait of the artist as a serious boy full of fun who grows into a tense, conflicted man and a stranger in his own land. A relentless sense of sadness and loss accompanies the unfinished story, underlined by an extremely brusque ending that snaps the story off in the middle of a mood.

Using the child to illuminate the man, and vice versa, Amelio’s screenplay flashes backwards and forwards between the protag Jacques Cormery’s impoverished childhood in the 1920s and his contested return to Algiers in 1957 during the Algerian war of independence.

As a boy, Cormery is a gifted, hard-working student, but after his father’s death in WWI his family is so poor that, instead of attending high school, he’s sent to work in a printing press with his simple-minded uncle. Only the timely intervention of a teacher and benefactor (Denis Podalydes) allows him to continue his studies and go on to become a Nobel prize-winning novelist who will one day write about the Algerian tragedy.

Expounding noble ideas like, “The duty of a writer is to aid the victims of history,” the adult Cormery (Jacques Gamblin) makes a controversial return to Algiers to visit his aged mother (Catherine Sola) and retrace his roots. The revolution is in progress and the political climate is incandescent, though the film keeps everything, even violent riots and the bloody bombing of a bus, at a dreamlike distance.

His first stop is a university lecture hall, where his empathy with the Arabs causes havoc with the French students. His handlers take him to sleep in a hotel, presumably to protect his mother from possible reprisals, or maybe heckling. However, this never happens; in fact Cormery walks around town with perfect impunity, visiting his mother several times, and one wonders what all the fuss was about.

Stiff in his gray suit and tie, the poker-faced Gamblin communicates none of Camus’s charisma, just a sort of moral helplessness in the face of horrible events he can do nothing to stop. This is well-illustrated when his childhood friend Hamoud begs him to intervene with the authorities to stop the execution of his son Aziz, a proudly unbowed member of the Algerian resistance. The scene of Cormery nonchalantly walking up the steep stairs of the Casbah, followed by hostile stares, conveys something of his bravery and sense of purpose, but his appeal proves worthless. The truly moving scene is the one in prison between the desperate father and his fearless son, who refuses to renege on his beliefs to save himself.

Playing Cormery’s mother as a young woman, Italian actress Maya Sansa brings warmth to the role of an illiterate woman who, as her son will later say, “knew suffering and injustice.” But it is Jacques’ fearsome grandmother (unforgettably portrayed by character actress Ulla Baugue) who rules the household, caning the boy viciously for coming home late, plunging her arm into an outdoor toilet to retrieve a coin, lying with immense dignity to his teacher to hide the family’s extreme penury.

These and other striking moments put a human face on a film that tends to be static and intellectualized, and overly careful about showing Camus as a supporter of the independence movement but against terrorism. “I will defend the Arabs but not if, in their rage, they hurt my mother. Then I shall become their enemy.”  Reduced to these simple terms during a radio interview, the great philosopher’s thought comes off sounding positively bland.

Luca Bigazzi’s pleasing cinematography finds the perfect meeting point between the blazing African sun and Cormery’s cool, contained intellectual, burning out color into refined shades of soft grays.

Venue: Hong Kong Film Festival (Master Class section), Mar. 24, 2012
Production companies: Cattleya, Soudaine Compagnie, Maison de Cinema, France 3 Cinéma
Cast: Jacques Gamblin, Ulla Baugue, Maya Sansa, Catherine Sola, Denis Podalydes, Regis Romele
Director: Gianni Amelio
Screenwriter: Gianni Amelio based on a novel by Albert Camus
Producers: Marco Chimenz, Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Bruno Pesery, Philippe Carcassone
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Arnaud de Moleron
Editor: Carlo Simeoni
Music: Franco Piersanti
Costumes: Patricia Colin
Sales Agent: Studio Canal
No rating, 98 minutes.