Friday, September 16, 2011

Le premier homme (The First Man)

Jacques Gamblin as Jacques Cormery, Camus' alter ego in the film
Le premier homme (The First Man) (France/Algeria/Italy, 2010) written & directed by Gianni Amelio
September 16, 2011, TIFF LightBox 1, 9.00am

My first encounter with the director Gianni Amelio was his phenomenal film Lamerica (1994) where two Italian racketeers come to Albania to enact some dodgy scheme and then get trapped inside the country. Their fate comes to resemble that of the desperate refugees who are attempting to flee Albania for Italy. Le premier homme, a collaboration between France/Algeria/Italy is no less affecting.

Albert Camus' (1913 -1960) autobiographical manuscript for Le premier homme was in the wreckage of the car where he died but was not published until 1994. There are many elements from Camus' life here - many of them not pretty and a testimony to the power of his talent and intelligence and the faith that others placed in him as a young boy with enormous potential.

The film alternates between the present where Jacques Cormery (Jacques Gamblin), now a world famous author and advocate for the rights of Algerians, has returned to Algeria in 1957 to visit his mother Catherine (Catherine Sola) and his past life as a young boy raised by his gentle mother and a tempestuous, autocratic grandmother.

Jacques' return, as an internationally acclaimed author, triggers a series of protests against him for his pro-Arab views as well as a series of memories - some pleasant, some disturbing.

Jacques, a gentle but fatherless boy whose father died in WWI, suffers a series of indignities. In one memorable scene he is trapped by the dog catcher and placed in a cage for hours for aiding a group of boys in releasing all the captured dogs. The only way he is released is by giving his new shoes to the son of the Arab man who caged him.

In another memorable scene, a school colleague named Aziz, picks a fight with him because he resents Jacques' attentiveness as a student, perceiving his intelligent inquiries as brown-nosing. When Aziz is punished and Jacques tries to comfort him the boy strikes Jacques with such intensity that even we, as the viewers, are shocked. Amelio subtly conveys the plight of the Arabs in their own country - they inhabit the scenes like ghosts, neither seen nor heard by their French occupiers unless it is to harass, inspect or imprison them. While a fellow student recites the glories of Napoleon and the French empire or the role of France in WWI, Aziz stares off into the distance in a fugue of insolence and distaste.

There are frequent beatings with a switch from Jacques' grandmother for small and large transgressions that his mother appears powerless to prevent. Mother, uncle, grandson - all are cowed by this ferocious old woman who would willingly stick her fist in a pile of feces in the outdoor toilet to ascertain whether her grandson has indeed lost a coin or spent it as she suspects.

Jacques is expected to leave school to support his family - his mother is a laundress, his uncle is a workman with intellectual disabilities who works at a printer. And Jacques does so until a sympathetic and well loved teacher intervenes and provides him with a scholarship.

The adult Jacques returns to a country no less oppressed than the one he leaves as a young man. As a Frenchman he travels freely through the heavily guarded streets while Arabs are thoroughly checked at various checkpoints by the French military.

His old nemesis Aziz contacts him and asks for aid for his son who has been imprisoned for possessing bombs which were later used in a terrorist attack (or a revolutionary bid for freedom depending on your point of view). Cormery's public plea for leniency falls on deaf ears. But Jacques' appeal for justice is not soft-headed. he supports the rights of the Arabs but not their right to kill his mother.

Jacques understands the pull of Algeria yet still fears for his mother's life yet she does not want to live in France as it "has no Arabs". We understand her ambivalence - despite the horrors of colonial rule, the poverty, the uncertainty of life, Algeria's dusty streets charm and captivate her and us.

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