Film Review #139: Blame it on Fidel
Director: Julie Gavras
Cast: Nina Kervel-Bey, Julie Depardieu, Stefano Acorsi
It’s one of those furious, dramatic exits, more exhilarating because the one stalking out is all of ten years old. As befits a school-girl trained by French nuns to stand when the priest enters – elsewhere another pupil demonstrates hilarious mastery of the single raised eyebrow as comment on unseemly adult behavior – Anna (Nina Kervel-Bey) marches head down, her silence incendiary, dragging five-year-old brother François (Benjamin Feuillet) by one wrist, out the door and into the streets of Paris.
Bad enough her parents took away her garden, her normal food, her catechism classes, and her beloved Cuban nanny Filomena (Marie-Noelle Bordeaux), who lost everything to Castro and supplies the story’s title. Bad enough they move to a cramped, shabby apartment, host nightly meetings of bearded men preaching “group solidarity,” and her attorney father leaves for months on end to assist Chile’s new Socialist regime. The breaking point comes amidst tears and shouts as her parents fight, the one rupture this little girl will not abide.
For some time she and François sit quietly on a park bench, their feet dangling as tall grown-ups pass. Then they go home. Their young parents meet them at the door with anguished relief. She has gotten their attention and we believe it, even smiling a little at them – one outcome of filmmaker Julie Gavras and casting director Coralie Amedeo testing almost 500 girls to find their right Anna.
A French import that screened early this year at Sundance and then Lincoln Center’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, played in US art-houses from August till November and just released on DVD, Blame it on Fidel is being marketed here as a comedy about generational friction and political excess. A sensible child fumes and rolls her eyes as her idealistic parents go over the edge in sudden enthusiasm for lefty causes. Papa Fernando (Stefano Acorsi) carries some guilt. He fled a wealthy Spanish background to France, even sat out 1968’s student protests, rather than join his sister Marga (Mar Sodupe) in resisting Franco’s fascists. Now Marga’s arrival – her husband has disappeared – sparks Fernando’s confused awakening. He then objects when wife Marie (Julie Depardieu) is more publically feminist than he likes, signing an abortion petition that embarrasses him and leads to that fight.
But Anna’s parents are never buffoons. Decent, affectionate and generous young people, they try to be good parents, role models and, perhaps belatedly, citizens in the best sense. And Gavras frames her film with the deaths of two presidents; each breaks the hearts of a different generation, and in that mirrored grief finds a common aspiration that lingers and raises Gavras’ first feature well above guffaws at the expense of novice activism. When Anna’s grandfather (Oliver Perrier), a Bordeaux vineyard owner, says that “France is orphaned” by the death of Charles DeGaulle, his grief recalls the French Resistance that helped defeat World War II’s Nazi occupation. DeGaulle died just six days after Chile elected Salvatore Allende in November 1970. Chile’s military overthrew this popular reformer on September 11, 1973. Gavras excerpts Allende’s riveting last address to his nation, along with news footage of the coup and Allende’s death, which Anna’s parents and their friends watch, huddled around the TV, as sorrowful as Anna’s grandfather had been two years earlier. By the time this occurs, Anna has moved from resentment to some appreciation and, notably, choses to change schools. (Ironically, soon after Gavras wrapped her film, former dictator Augustin Pinochet, who supplanted Allende, also died.)
Gavras based Blame it on Fidel on Domitilla Calamai’s novel of the same name, which she read after meeting Calamai in Italy. Daughter of Oscar-winning Greek political filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gavras (Z, State of Siege, Missing) and producer Michèle Ray-Gavras, she initially resisted feature filmmaking, first with law school, then working in production and documentaries, until a story brought her home. In adapting Calamai’s novel to the screen, Gavras herself added the Allende storyline to her script. She was just twelve in 1982 when her father made Missing. On the DVD’s excellent extras (see also how the children were cast and directed, and what Julie Depardieu thought of growing up with Gerard’s rising stardom), she recalls that film – in which Sissy Spacek played an outspoken young American whose husband disappears during the Allende coup, bickering with Jack Lemmon as her judgmental, conservative father-in-law – was her own “political awakening.” Gavras also sees the enduring legacy of the 70s as women’s liberation, so filmed Blame it on Fidel from Anna’s point of view and made her parents’ pivotal quarrel about a feminist issue like abortion.
Gavras comes of age in good company this year. Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter Sofia already has her own shelf in the famous directors’ section at some rental shops. Zoe (John) Cassavetes’ Broken English is newly out on DVD, and Alison (Clint) Eastwood’s Rails and Ties opened last month. All daughters coming home.
This review appears in the 12/6/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.