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Monday, 9 February 2009

Cinema





A Secret Revealed


Daniele Easton Thomas, a former honorary consul of France in Philadelphia , presented Un Secret, a film by Claude Miller, at its Philadelphia debut held recently as part of the Jewish Film Festival. The following is an edited transcript.

It is true that the film industry has has been doing well in France last year: An Oscar for Marion Cottillard, the second French actress to win an Academy Award since Simone Signoret in 1959; the Cannes Festival Award for Class; and a stimulating roster of recent releases like Tell No One, Man on the Wire, The Secret of the Grain,and A Christmas Tale.

Because of my affiliation with the Alliance Francaise, I would like to share a little bit of history about the organisation: In Philadelphia, the Alliance Francaise was founded in 1903. It was in 1883 in Paris that a group of Frenchmen to create a network of alliances in the world to promote French culrture and language.

THEIR INSPIRATION, THEIR MODEL, WAS THE UNIVERSAL ISRAELITE ALLIANCE CREATE D 25 YEARS EARLIER IN PARIS BY A GROUP OF 18 FRENCH JEWS, ALL FERVENT BELIEVERS IN THE IDEALS AND PRINCIPLES OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE 19TH CENTURY, WHEN ONLY A TENTH OF THE WORLD'S JEWISH POPULATION ENJOYED BASIC CIVIL RIGHTS, AND MOST JEWS LIVED IN POVERTY, FRENCH JEWS WERE ALLOWED TO VOTE, OWN PROPERTY, LIVE WHERE THEY WANTED, PRACTICE LIBERAL PROFESSIONS, AND ENTER POLITICS -- RIGHTS THEY HAD ENJOYED SINCE 1791. IN SHORT, ALTHOUGH FRENCH JEWS WERE STILL SUBJECT TO UNOFFICIAL PERSECUTION, THEY WERE CONSIDERABLY BETTER OFF THAN THE VAST MAJORITY OF JEWS IN THE WORLD, AND THE FOUNDER OF THE ALLIANCE ISRAELITE UNIVERSELLE, ADOLPHE CREMIEUX, A LAWYER WHO LATER BECAME A FRENCH MINISTER OF JUSTICE, AIMED TO HELP POOR JEWS BY CREATING AN EDUCATED JEWISH MIDDLE CLASS, SPECIFICALLY IN EASTERN EUROPE, NORTH AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST.

I WANT TONIGHT TO GIVE BACK TO CESAR WHAT BELONGS TO CESAR, AND TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE CREDIT THE ALLIANCE FRANCAISE HERE AND ELSEWHERE OWES TO THOSE 18 FRENCH INNOVATORS.

LET US SWITCH TO THE FILM A SECRET [BY FRENCH DIRECTOR CLAUDE MILLER, ADAPTED FROM THE EPONYMOUS NOVEL BY PHILIPPE GRIMBERT, A PSYCHOANALYST WORKING WITH AUTISTIC AND PSYCHOTIC CHILDREN.


I HAD NOT SEEN THE FILM WHEN I WAS INVITED TO PRESENT THE MOVIE. I HAD ONLY READ THE BOOK AND I HAD BEEN TOUCHED BY IT. THE BOOK AND THE MOVIE HAVE BEEN VERY WELL RECEIVED IN FRANCE.

IN THE U.S., THE PRESS MAY HAVE BEEN MORE SEVERE, WITH CRITICISM CONCENTRATING ON THREE MAJOR ISSUES. I WOULD LIKE TO ADDRESS THEM BEFORE THE SCREENING IN THE HOPE THEY CAN BE DISPELLED, OR DISCUSSED LATER.

ONE REPROACH IS THAT A SECRET, SHUTTLING BETWEEN TIME PERIODS, MAY PROVE CONFUSING. 'IT IS A MUDDLED WASHOUT,' I READ IN ONE AMERICAN REVIEW. THE STRUCTURE OF THE MOVIE THAT SPANS HALF A CENTURY IS COMPLEX INDEED, WITH FLASHBACKS IN THE PRE-WARTIME, THE WAR PERIOD, AND a FLASHFORWARD TO THE PRESENT DAY.


YES, WE SLALOM BETWEEN THE 30S, THE 80S, THE 50S, AND BACK AND FORTH, NOT IN ANY CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER. THIS UNCONVENTIONAL STORY TELLING MIRRORS PERFECTLY THE METRONOME OF THE EMOTIONS OF THE YOUNG NARRATOR -- THAT OF HIS SELF DISCOVERY. IF THERE ARE PROFESSIONALS IN THE PSYCHOLOGIC FIELD WITH US TONIGHT, THEY WILL AGRE E THAT UNRAVELLING SOME MEMORIES TAKES OFF MANY LAYERS, PEELING THEM, NOT NECESSARILY WITH LOGIC.


ANOTHER POTENTIAL SOURCE OF CONFUSION MAY COME FROM THE UNCONVENTIONAL COLOuR CODING OF THE PAST AND THE PRESENT:
CLAUDE MILLER DECIDED TO SHOOT THE PAST IN COLOUR, THE PRESENT IN BLACK AND WHITE. A LINEAR STORYTELLING WOULD HAVE MADE THE STORY SEEM MORE BANAL THAN IT IS.

THE SECOND REPROACH IS TO HAVE INJECTED TOO MUCH BEAUTY INTO THIS FILM: 'TOO MUCH EMPHASIS ON BODY BEAUTIFUL, WITH ALMOST GOD-LIKE PHYSICAL SPECIMENS.' SAID SOME CRITICS. TO THEM, PHYSICAL FITNESS IN THE 30S AND 40S WAS ONLY AN ATTEMPT FOR MANY EUROPEAN JEWS TO ASSIMILATE, AND WAS OVERPLAYED IN THE MOVIE.

THAT WOULD BE DISREGARDING ONE OF THE TWO MAJOR REVOLUTIONS THAT SHOOK EUROPE BY THE END OF 19TH CENTURY: THE FIRST REVOLUTION WAS POLITICAL,THE AWAKENING AND GROWTH OF EUROPEAN NATIONALISMS, NOTABLY IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE. THE SECOND REVOLUTION WAS THE DEVELOPMENT OF MODERN SPORT WITH THE CREATION OF MANY SPORTS CLUBS, AND THE REVIVAL OF THE ANCIENT OLYMPIC GAMES BY PIERRE DE COUBERTIN IN 1896.

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY WAS NOT UNTOUCHED BY THESE TWO WAVES. ON THE POLITICAL SCENE, ZIONISM WITH THEODOR HERZL AND BUNDISM BECAME THE TWO MAJOR MOVEMENTS, MOSTLY AMONG EAST EUROPEANS. ON THE SPORT FRONT, FOLLOWING DR. MAX NORDAU'S CALL TO MUSKELJUDENTUM, MUSCULAR JUDAISM, EMANCIPATION THROUGH MUSCLES, MORE THAN 100 JEWISH SPORTS CLUBS WERE QUICKLY ORGANISED ALL OVER EUROPE, IN VIENNA, IN PRAGUE, IN BERLIN.

THIS MOVEMENT RECEIVED A CONSIDERABLE BOOST WITH THE APPEARANCE IN 1900 OF THE FIRST PERIODICAL DEDICATED ENTIRELY TO JEWISH SPORT, DIE JUEDISCHE TURANZEITUNG. THE OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF THE PRE-EMINENT JEWISH GYMNASTIC CLUB IN BERLIN.

THE TRADITIONAL PRISM OF APPRECIATION OF THE JEWISH LIFE WAS NO LONGER THROUGH INTELLECTUALISM AND SPIRITUALITY ONLY.
SUCCESSES BY JEWISH ATHLETES WERE NUMEROUS,10 MEDALS ALONE IN THE ATHENS 1896 OLYMPIC GAMES, 18 MEDALS IN LOS ANGELES FOR THE 1932 GAMES, AND AGNES KELETI, A GYMNAST FROM HUNGARY, SAVED BY RAOUL WALLENBERG, WON 11 MEDALS. OF COURSE, THE MOVEMENT WAS FOLLOWED IN FRANCE, AS WELL, IN FENCING, SWIMMING, WITH SWIMMER ALFRED NAKACHE's TWO WORLD RECORDS BETWEEN 1936 AND 1945.

LET ME ADDRESS THE THIRD REPROACH: YES, ANOTHER HOLOCAUST MOVIE. THIS CAN BE INTERPRETED IN WAYS: THERE HAVE BEEN ENOUGH OF THEM, OR A FILM CANNOT DO JUSTICE TO SUCH A PAINFUL PERIOD! HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS AND SCHOLARS ARE ON GUARD AGAINST ANY FABRICATION OF MEMORIES BECAUSE THEY MAY TAINT THE TRUTH ABOUT THE MILLIONS WHO WERE KILLED OR BRUTALIZED.

MY OPINION IS THAT MORE THAN 60 YEARS HAVE PASSED SINCE THE END OF THE NAZI OCCUPATION, AND NOW THAT ALMOST ALL THE PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS HAVE BEEN SWEPT OFF THE STAGE, A YOUNGER FRENCH GENERATION IS COMING TO GRIPS WITH THE NATIONAL SHAME OF THE 1940S.

THE PROOF? GRIMBERT RECEIVED MANY LITERARY PRIZES FOR HIS BOOK, AMONG THEM THE GONCOURT. NOT THE REGULAR GONCOURT PRIZE, BESTOWED BY A GROUP OF ELDER SPECIALISTS, BUT THE GONCOURT OF HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS, LE GONCOURT DES LYCEENS, A REWARD CROWNING EVERY YEAR A BOOK CHOSEN BY A JURY OF 1,500 FRENCH STUDENTS FROM 55 HIGH SCHOOLS ALL OVER FRANCE AMONG A DOZEN BOOKS STUDIED IN CLASS.

ISN'T THIS THE BEST ANSWER TO CRITICISM? THAT YOUNG FRENCH STUDENTS 15 TO 18-YEARS OLD SELECTED THIS DRAMATIC PAGE OF FRENCH HISTORY? THERE IS INDEED A NEW YOUNG PUBLIC THIRSTING FOR KNOWLEDGE OF THAT ERA.

NOW CONCERNING THE FEAR OF TRIVIALISING A DRAMATIC PAGE OF HISTORY, AS CLAUDE LANZMAN AFTER HIS DOCUMENTARY SHOAH FEARED. I WOULD LIKE TO QUOTE ANDRE BAZIN, A CO-FOUNDER IN 1951 OF THE FILM MAGAZINE CAHIERS DU CINEMA.

'IF WE DEFINE FILM CULTURE NOT ONLY AS KNOWLEDGE OF SOME GIVENS OF THE TECHNICAL,THE HISTORICAL, AND THE ARTISTIC, BUT ALSO AS THE RECOGNITION OF OUR COLLECTIVE DREAMS, ILLUSIONS, AND I DARE SAY, WORST THOUGHTS, THEN EVERY FILM, GOOD OR BAD, REALIST OR FABRICATED, IS AN IRREPLACEABLE SOCIAL DOCUMENTARY.'

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