Sunday, November 18, 2007

Francesco Rosi’s The Truce (1997)

Francesco Rosi’s adaptation of Primo Levi’s 1963 novel La tregua (The Reawakening in the USA) deserves to be acknowledged for some important merits. First of all, Rosi took the responsibility to film the difficult work of an established and widely known Italian author. Secondly, he choose to adapt one of Levi’s books that is surely less famous than the survival account Se questo è un uomo (1947 and 1958, If This Is A Man) and in doing so, he decides to show a less explored topic related to the Holocaust: the survivors’ return at the end of the war. Thirdly, in retelling us the story of Primo Levi’s return from Auschwitz, Rosi increases the short list of Italian films about the Holocaust, a list that in 1997 counted only Kapò (1959) by Gillo Pontecorvo, Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1970) by Vittorio De Sica, Pasqualino Settebellezze (1975) by Lina Wertmüller, and Jona che visse nella balena (1993) by Roberto Faenza. However, Francesco Rosi’s film, even considering the difficulties of approaching the Holocaust theme and the adaptation of a book highlighted by Milicent Marcus in her “Francesco Rosi’s The Truce,” fails to be compelling and to allow the viewers to become, as Marcus says, the “addressable others” (267). This failure is caused, in my opinion, by the excess of explanatory and didactic dialogues, especially in the second half of the movie. The film says too much with words instead of suggesting with images, and this is even more jarring when the words come from Primo Levi, a survivor who felt the burden of guilt for having escaped death and who wrote poetry and pages of an extreme symbolic power. When Rosi’s film ends, the viewer has the impression of having witnessed/observed a compilation of Holocaust topoi: the feeling of guilt of the survivor, the problem of Jewish camp collaborators, the role and the place of God during the time of the Shoah, the survivor’s responsibilities to let the world know, and the prisoners’ anguish for their families’ fates—all of this, but without having room to think about them, or, using Levi’s words, to meditate.

The opening establishing shots

The film starts with eloquent captions that set the time and the place: Auschwitz, January 1946. In addition, the fire, the German shouting, and the barking dogs contribute to recreate a “familiar” Holocaust scene. After few minutes, though, Rosi decides to show us Primo’s tattooed arm with a close-up, as to re-center our attention to the protagonist of the story and away from the mass of prisoners running away from the Russian army. The symbolic power of the tattooed number allows us to read this image as an unusual establishing shot that contributes to our attitude toward the movie.

The same shot will be repeated at the end of the film. Primo is back home and he is about to start writing Se questo è un uomo. His survivor’s status is now full of responsibility: he is now a messenger and the number on his arm is there to remind him of his new duty.


The following scenes show the beginning of the long journey home. As in other films and literary works about the Holocaust, confusion and disorientation are the common feelings among the prisoners. Although apparently calm and serene (a state that Turturro’s Levi seems to be very comfortable with), Primo shares the same sensation as the repeated questions he poses in the first hour of the film testimony: “Go where?,” “Kept by whom?,” and “Where are we going?” This disorientation, however, does not coincide with the filming of the journey. The viewer is never lost and the journey, although winding, appears linear.

Rosi’s translation

As observed by Marcus in her article, Rosi takes the responsibility to be Levi’s translator and messenger in the market scene. In this scene, Primo tries to tell what living at Auschwitz was to the people at the market. Initially, he has the help of a person who is able to translate in Polish what Primo tries to say to sell his shirt. However, as soon as Primo starts talking about Auschwitz, the translator refuses to continue. Rosi, then, with the movement of the camera that pans until arriving on top of the people, makes the viewers aware of his presence and accepts the task of continuing Primo’s testimony.

Rosi’s “Cinema of Prose”

In fulfilling his duty of messenger of a messenger, as said before, Rosi is very assertive and didactic. In the second half of the film, in fact, in a series of short scenes, many issues related to the Holocaust are treated and apparently exhausted in a very simplistic way. Among these, I will talk about the problems of the camp collaborationists and of the German feeling of guilt as they are treated in two scenes of the film. The first issue is quickly approached when Cesare is distributing the meat of a calf and Daniele (a character who is never fully developed) prohibits Flora from having it because she “broke bread with the S.S.” Primo’s opposition to Daniele is clear and understandable. Nonetheless, the problem of Jewish collaboration with the Nazi deserved a much deeper analysis than the acceptance/refusal dichotomy and should have not been liquidated in terms of right or wrong.

The second issue is focused in particular in the Munich station scene. Although Marcus’ analysis of this scene highlights interesting connections for the image of the kneeling German, I still feel that Rosi’s choice does not pay enough attention to the extent of controversial historical and sociological knot. This image is much too conclusive to be credible, especially considering the historical context of 1946.

Rosi’s “Cinema of Poetry”

A scene that could be qualified as a moment of Pasolinian Cinema of Poetry is the scene in which the Italian survivors watch through a window the Russian family who gave them food to eat. Uncertain about their journey and about the fate of their own families, in this scene through the deforming glasses of a window this family appears like an unreachable mirage. The deformation and the color of these images tell us about the feelings and desires of these Italian men much more than they could explain with words by themselves.

In my view, if Rosi could have adopted consistently these stylistic choices, he would have realized a much more compelling movie that would have pushed the viewers to think about the survivors’ journey more than just consider it a mere act of tribute.


An article about Primo Levi’s death/suicide

A web site about Primo Levi’s literary works

Resnais’ poetic documentary about the Holocaust Nuit et Bruillard (1955, in French with English subtitles)

A page and a video about Willy Brandt kneeling in 1970


Marcus, Millicent. “Francesco Rosi’s The Truce.” After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2002.


AlonsoDelarte said...

And what is Roberto Benigni's La vita è bella of 1997, chopped liver? That film came out the same year as La Tregua and also looked at the Holocaust from a different perspective than the usual.

I'll have more to say on La Tregua another day.

Anonymous said...

Benigni's "La vita e` bella" came out in Italy only the 20th December 1997. In other countries, it came out months later and won the Academy Awards in 1999. In 2002, then, the Italian tv broadcasted "Perlasca. Un eroe italiano," a tv-movie about Giorgio Perlasca, sort of an Italian Oskar Schindler. As far as I know, before and after "La tregua," nothing else was produced in Italy regarding this topic.

H Jennings said...

Personally the Truce is much better than Benigni's film. There is far more substance. A genuine account from a survivor is going to be taken more seriously than a comedy of tragedy. I thought the most interesting aspect to the film is that it is a story of return. Most of the films that I have seen that relate to the holocaust show what happens before and during the internment in the camps or just in general before the war is over. Rarely have I seen in film the aftermath of such a tragic event in history. It seems as though we are not only seeing one man's return home but also a man's trip to reclaim his sense of self.

JamieF said...

I thought this film was very moving and as H mentioned, covered something rarely discussed in Holocaust portrayals: what came after. The story is always about the soldiers who liberated the camps, and we are taught that everything miraculously fell into place after that. But you never really understand the brevity of such a traumatic event until you view something like this.

sficano said...

I have to disagree with H's comment about this film being better than Benigni's. I always am cautious to use terms like "better" or "worse;" I prefer... different!

I can appreciate how both films tackle this very sensitive topic in a way that is still eye opening to the public.

In defense of "Life is Beautiful," I think its use of comedy an romance is actually what makes it so compelling for audiences. As a result of these aspects, the audience is given the chance to grow closer to the characters and as a result feels not only their joy, but the pain the war costs them in the end. And those who have seen it know, this film has a mixed emotional ending.

I can appreciate "The Truce" for other aspects worth mentioning, especially the use of poetry in the film. I found our class discussion interesting as to how the film might have felt different in the end had the entire poem been cited.

A very interesting blog discussion here everyone!

HeatherW said...

I think there are a lot of aspects to this film which make is moving for an audience to view, and these aspects are not all based on the content of the film. I've never seen "Life is Beautiful", however watching this film, and reading your posts may have swayed me into viewing it. I have never seen another film which tackles the aftermath of something as horrible as the Holocaust, and definately never one which shows so many varying views. To witness the soldiers and the prisoners BOTH have emotional reactions to the events, that is something that I enjoyed.