Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 10, 2021 10:44 pm 
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French prisoners perform "Waiting for Godot" as if it's never been done before

This is a kind of sequel to Rachid Helmi's Orchestra Class/La Mélodie (2017)( R-V 2018) - the movie starring Kad Merad about a teacher to disadvantaged folks, an established genre. As the end titles explain, this surprising story is a "fait divers" (news event) that really happened in Sweden.

The result is what the French call "un feel good movie," and one judged worthy of the name. About rediscovering one's passion, and the actor's trade.

In this we're told that the French are just discovering that prisoners relate strongly to Beckett. I don't quite believe it. Beckett has been playing in prisons for decades. Beckett wrote his major works first in French. He lived across from Paris' La Santé prison and collaborated with California prisoner turaned Beckett director Rick Cluchey for many years. How could the French not have discovered this natural affinity between waiting for Godot and rotting in prison?

That said, this is great stuff. In prison, there's no messing around (nor, in a sense, with ghetto kids either). Scenes of Etienne working with the five prisoners chosen to be actors focus on two, Jordan (the vibrant Pierre Lottin), who can barely read, but must learn to recite the 3 nonstop pages of Lucky's wild, complex, nonsense speech, an "Everest" for him to scale, and Kamel (Sofian Khammes), an Arab guy who is a prison caïd who turns up later, having wangled his way in, buying out another guy. The warden Ariane (Marina Hands of Lady Chatterly and Tell No One), whom Etienne must constantly deal with, thinks having Kamel around on the project is very dangerous. But Étienne must insist on keeping him because there is no time and Kamel has turned out to be good. These scenes alternate with argument and pleading with the prison bureaucrats to get the conditions in which Etienne can prepare the play. He has six months. He must fight to get quality time. And thus the docu-style drama maintains excitement.

When the preparation is done, they are taken out of prison, to the Théâtre de la Croix-Rousse in Lyon. "The wind has a smell!" one exclaims, when they leave the prison gate. They're as excited as children. They sort of are children. This is part of the power of such a production: the prisoner actors are fresh, full of pent-up energy and need. This is their chance to do something special, to count as individuals, and a ticket to escape - for a short time - into the outside world.

The film makes every performance - and after one, they're invited to come to theaters in three other cities - different and exciting because of the indiscipline of the prisoner cast members: thoughts of making a run for it are not lacking at times. After the last show, they get wild in the bus and dance naked in front of the jail, resulting in disciplinary detention. A new complication: they've now been invited to perform at Paris' Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, one if France's national theaters, but their misbehavior means they are banned from travel. Can Étienne get the judge d'instruction to waive this prohibition?

If at many moments this film feels real, even when we absolutely know it can't be,it's because the prisoners are played by professional actors, and pretty good ones. In this it's unlike the Taviani brother's Caesar Must Die(NYFF 2012), about a prison production of Julius Caesar using prison actors with relatively clunky results, a tedious structure and obviously rehearsed dialogue. Here, the "prison" cast often seems explosively spontaneous. Even if this is manipulative, every success in the Beckett performances is made to seem miraculous because it always seems they might go wrong. Étienne is kept important and collaborative - present and communicating during every performance. The Algerian-born Kad Merad costarred in the most popular French-made film in France of the 2000's, Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, and a very popular one, Les choristes: he is gallic movie mainstream "feel good" gold. We'll see if the pleasing twists of this film play well with French critics and audience in its upcoming release. It seems geared to do so.

The Big Hit/Un triumphe, 105 mins., was part of Cannes Official Selection May 2020, and as such debuted at Angoulême in Aug.; IMDb lists seven other festival showings. Scheduled for theatrical release in France Mar. 24, 2021. Screened online at home for this review as part of the all-virtual FLC-UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Mar. 10 2021.

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