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Friday, Jan. 30, 2009

Blame It on Truffaut

French film highlight

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An orange represents the world's wealth, a raggedly bearded Leninist tells 9-year-old Anna (Nina Kervel). And a capitalist is someone who wants to keep the whole orange. A communist, he adds while peeling the rind and offering the girl a piece, wants to share the wealth.

But on the other hand, when Anna tries to adopt her radicalized parents' rhetoric of "group solidarity," she finds herself in the wrong, blindly moving like a lamb in a flock of sheep. Her parents have difficulty explaining the distinction between group solidarity and herd mentality.

Such is the conundrum faced by the precocious Anna in Blame It on Fidel, a bright and lively film that is one of the showpieces at this year's "Festival of Films in French," held Feb. 6-Feb. 15 at the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre. The weeklong series includes features and documentaries from French-speaking Africa and Quebec as well as France. Blame Iton Fidel screens at 7 p.m. on Feb. 7 and 5 p.m. on Feb. 8.

Blame It on Fideltells its story from the child's perspective but without the sentimentality, saccharine and sap that normally smother Hollywood movies starring precocious children navigating the shallows of adult society. Director-writer Julie Gavras, daughter of famed filmmaker Costa-Gavras, places Anna in a child's scale world, her ear pressed against the closed doors of adult secrets and anger.

Set in early-1970s France, Gavras' intelligently conceived film handles heavy subjects with a light, graceful touch. Fidel Castro is less a shadow on the wall than Salvador Allende, Chile's socialist president and the great hope of leftists worldwide. To Anna's belatedly militant parents (who entered the fray too late for the radicalism of May 1968), Chile is a land of promise waiting to be transformed into the Utopia of Marxist prophecies. For her part, Anna insists on staying in Catholic school and goes bitter when her parents withdraw her from religion class. She fills the spiritual void with her Greek refugee nanny's myths of Gaia and Uranus born from Chaos as the cosmos began, and her North Vietnamese maid who speaks of the Emperor of the Sky and the Rain Genie.

Anna's parents mean well, even if they denounce Mickey Mouse as fascist or if some of their political fervor is personal unhappiness projected onto world events. Treating her various characters with empathy, with respect as well as humor, Gavras allows Anna to arrive at a conclusion more adult than the pontificating of the grown-ups around her. Nobody, she seems to realize, has all the answers.

For more information on the "Festival of Films in French," call 229-3346.
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