I seem to have an especial fondness for the sort of peripatetic film that follows a character through his entire life. I say this after having just sat in admiration through the recent French film, Chocolat, starring the superb black actor Omar Sy, a film that begins in a small-town circus and then follows its characters through their subsequent lives to the bitter end.
An early example (1963) of this sort of film that has stayed fresh in my memory was the British Tom Jones, based on the novel by Henry Fielding, superbly filmed by Tony Richardson with, in the role of the scapegrace Jones, the young Albert Finney (destined to join the pantheon of the greatest British actors, but, like Richard Burton, never quite achieving it), working on a script by John Osborne --- truly this film was the product of the most startling younger talents of the British theatre at that time.
For the obvious reason that both films begin in a small-town circus, Chocolat also reminded me of one other of the best films I have ever seen, Carlos Diegues’ Bye-Bye Brazil (1979), in which a team of small-time circus performers --- three at first with some later hangers-on --- travel along a new road built through the Amazon jungle into the nascent towns that explorers have begun to create in the interior. But the film investigates this new world with such power and fidelity that one critic described it as “a seismological documentary that registers the cultural aftershocks of the Braziian subcontinent,” a good description, except that it was not a documentary but a work of fiction.
Chocolat begins with this little circus camped in the open countryside, as two little boys, as boys do, rush to get to see the excitement close up.
The circus in question, Le cirque Delvaux is not doing too well, its primary attraction appearing to be that of a huge black man, with the stage name of Kananga, who appears fondling his pet chimpanzee, and whose only act is to roar like an animal to frighten the children in the audience. M. Delvaux is, however, holding auditions for new performers, one of whom is a failing clown called Footit, whose once-famous act has fallen out of favour with the changing audience. Delvaux spurns the clown’s attempt to be funny, rejects his application, but Footit, having watched Kananga at work, has developed an idea. He approaches the black man with a proposition that they join together in an act that would be something entirely new on the French stage, combining a white and black man working together. Given their chance, Footit and the black man make the audiences laugh, and before long they are spotted by a Parisian promoter who offers them unheard of riches to take their act to his circus in the big city, where, again, they are a huge success.
This film is based on a real story, and it begins in 1897, an era of maximum insensitivity towards black people in France. For Chocolat, the clown-name by which Kananga became known, was such a success in the double-act in Paris that he became the best-known black man in all of France. But his success was based on the fact that even in this double act, for which he was paid handsomely in money, he was still used as a scapegoat for the dominant white man, still kicked around the stage to get laughs, an activity which suited the prejudices of the audiences, but that eventually began to get under the skin of the black performer.
The film is graced by two remarkable performances, by Sy as the black clown, and by James Thiérrée, who just happens to be a grandson of Charlie Chaplin, the greatest clown in the history of films, some of whose talent seems to have washed through on to his grandson. Footit, the white clown, made no bones about it: he had rescued the black man from humiliation in his role as a cannibal, and he had no justifiable reason to question his treatment. Chocolat, however, accepted the freedom of being a monied man in Paris to enjoy himself, to spend freely, to gamble his earnings away, to make alliances with beautiful women, to dabble in drugs, but he was given reason from time to time to remember that he was not equal in that society.
When he finally refused to turn the other cheek, as it were, but one night instead slapped the white clown across the face during the act, he had to admit he had taken as much humiliation as he could bear. He had learned how to read by studying Shakespeare, and he had an ambition to play Othello, to become known as the first “real” Othello in the history of the French stage.
From this pount the story played itself out to its tragic end.
A superb film, to my way of thinking, certainly one enlivened and graced by the brilliant authenticity of its almost eerily-convincing period reconstructions, in costumes and settings. And Omar Sy is an actor of the utmost vitality, as he has o prove in Les Intouchables, one of the most popular films ever made in France, whee he again played again in a remarkable double-act when, as a recently released small-time criminal he was chosen by the paralysed aristocrat played by Francois Cluzet as an assistant who, against all likelihood, brought into his mentor’s life such vitality and irrepressible humour as to give the man a real life again, in spite of his paralysis.
The film was presented this week in Montreal as part of Cinemania, an annual 10-day event at which more than 50 French feature films are screened, along with special events such as meetings with directors, actors and other personalities.