The Sorrow and the Pity
dir.: Marcel Ophüls
NR, 260 min.
Opening Friday at the Belcourt Theatre
There’s a famous piece of archival footage that shows black Nashville students sitting stoically at a downtown lunch counter in the 1960s as a white mob bays outside. Histories of the civil-rights movement have heralded the students’ courage in defying an oppressive and unjust system. But the faces that haunt me are the ones that look like mine: the ones shown howling taunts and threats, the ones watching impassivelythe ones that today are clearly in the wrong.
It’s comforting to believe that previous generations of friends and relatives played no part in the tyranny of segregation, either as collaborators or enablers. One of the balming myths of the post-civil-rights South is that some faceless group of crackers nobody knew was responsible for the “troubles.” Yet if that’s true, why did a corrupt system flourish for so long? Who are those people in the archival footage, screaming and shoving? What troubles me most is that I’ll never know, with any certainty, whether I would have stood right alongside them.
Asking such questions today is safesafer than it was in 1968 for Marcel Ophüls, the French documentarian, to ask citizens of the city of Clermont-Ferrand what they did during World War II. Ophüls began his inquest little more than two decades after the end of the war, when the memories of France’s occupation by Germany were still raw. To deal with the humiliation, a widespread myth held that the vast majority of French citizens resisted the Nazisa myth promoted as official history by Charles de Gaulle, the Fifth Republic’s leader, who had led the Free French during wartime. Ophüls put it to the test, asking farmers, aristocrats, merchants, even former Nazis to share their remembrances.
The result, Ophüls’ landmark 1971 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, is one of the most famous movies ever made, and yet legal woes have kept it from audiences since the late 1980s. Thanks to Milestone Films, the movie is now touring the country in new prints, and it remains gripping and essential throughout its four-hour lengthevery minute of which is necessary. An examination of human nature and the conflicting functions of history and myth, The Sorrow and the Pity doesn’t brand people as heroes or villains. Rather, it scrupulously addresses the legends of the Resistance, the complexity of the truth, and the frailties that made collaboration possible.
The Sorrow and the Pity chronicles the years of the Occupation, from 1940, when the sympathetic Vichy government was established under Marshal Pétain, to the aftermath of liberation in 1944. The first half, “The Collapse,” concerns the early years of collaboration and the myth that the French put up a vigorous defense against the German invaders. On this count, Ophüls shows cheering French citizens lining the streets, dazzled by the Germans’ efficiency and military might. “We took France in one month,” says a former Nazi.
The movie’s most compelling segments concern the choices made by the citizens of Clermont-Ferrand and the way they regard the past. Wielding documents and newsreel footage like scalpels, Ophüls cuts through the townspeople’s self-deception. Two elderly teachers claim not to remember many resisters among their students, even though a plaque nearby lists the names of young Resistance fighters killed in the war. When Ophüls finds an ad placed by a Clermont storekeeper testifying to his racial purity, the director confronts the man, starting with a pointed inquiry about the storekeeper’s World War I medals. “You must be a very brave man,” the interviewer asks. The reply is telling: “I followed the others.”
Those who didn’t “follow the others” likely joined the Resistance. Their stories, which make up much of the second half, “The Choice,” show that heroism often comes from the most prosaic motivationssuch as the fighter who joined up because he resented Germans gobbling the steaks of French cows. Each new subject adds another facet to the movie’s portrait of humankind, from the jovial farmers who helped found the Resistance to the gay British officer who worried that his homosexuality would turn into cowardice. Yet Ophüls never exempts them from scrutiny: Despite a German’s eyewitness account of a French terrorist attack, the director can’t find a single Resistance man who will own up to any killing.
The accumulation of facts, footage, and eyewitness perspectives is staggering; it lays the groundwork for later achievements like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. But rarely does the director come at his subjects from a position of moral superiority. What emerges from the movie is the sense that human strength and human weakness alike transcend all national boundaries. Most remarkable, perhaps, is that despite the betrayals and even beatings they experienced, Resistance fighters refuse to condemn their countrymen. The film’s title comes from an interview with a Clermont-Ferrand pharmacist: Asked if there was anything besides courage in the Resistance movement, he replies, “Of course. But the two emotions I experienced most often were sorrow and pity.” The two emotions I experienced most watching The Sorrow and the Pity were terror and gratitude.
True to life
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is a quiet but cogent reply to a handful of screen genres that have exhausted their audience goodwill. Had it with contrived romantic comedies where lovers are kept apart through means artificial and superficial? Here’s a different kind of love story, rooted in the impossible, unshakable bonds of family. Rolling your eyes at cynical tearjerkers that seek to “inspire” by applauding the viewer for a penny’s worth of moral outrage? Get refreshed with a story rooted in the labyrinthine personality crises and prosaic pleasures of a recognizably real world. Infuriated by movies that treat religion as a flat, mundane battleground where white hats and black hats duke it out with the aid of appalling special effects? You Can Count on Me addresses your needs as well. It’s a cinematic panacea.
Lonergan’s debut film as a directorhe wrote the original screenplay for Analyze Thisstars Laura Linney as Sammy, a loan officer and single mother who lives in a small New York town, in the house where she grew up. As the film opens, she’s preparing for a visit from her younger brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo), a perpetually grousing drifter who’s back home only to borrow money, so that he can take care of a little problem his girlfriend is having. But what was intended as a brief reunion gets extended when Sammy’s new boss Brian (played by Matthew Broderick at his most officious) complains about her daily use of “personal time” to pick up her son Rudy (Rory Culkin) from school. Sammy asks Terry to run that errand for a few days, and the uncle-nephew relationship that develops both alters and reinforces a longstanding family dynamic.
It’s not every movie that can make an appointment with a school bus into an edge-of-your-seat moment of tension, but as we wait nervously to see if Terry will show up on time every day, it becomes obvious that Lonergan has a rare grasp of what the drama of everyday life is really all about. Lonergan honed this gift first as a playwright, and You Can Count on Me has the musicality of speech and the precise placement of actors that one would expect from an artist used to getting the most out of a stage medium. Yet You Can Count on Me is far from stagy. Lonergan explores the freedom of brevity that cinema allows, cutting scenes just when we know all we need to know; and although his visual style is far from dynamic, the director finds effective ways to shoot the same rooms and the same streets without unnecessarily repeating himself.
The film’s greatest benefit, though, comes from the casting. Ruffalo toes a precarious line as the oft-obstinate Terry, displaying enough humor and charm to earn sympathy for the moments when he’s deliberately hurtful. As for Linney, she maintains the studied naturalness that has made her one of the most off-puttingly showy actresses since the early days of Meryl Streep. But here, the strenuously “relaxed” performance fits her character’s finely honed self-image. And in the second half of the picture, as Terry’s bad influence begins to hold sway, Linney’s controlled persona also slips a thrilling little bit.
There are a few clever, writerly snatches of dialogue that keep Lonergan’s debut effort from being pitch perfect, and there’s a certain emotional and thematic reserve that may make this slice of life seem skillful but underwhelmingthat is, until the final scene, when the string of short, finely observed interactions culminates in a farewell as honestly tearful as any in cinema history. But if there’s a substantial flaw with You Can Count on Me, it’s only that the movie is a hard sell, especially when the walk-up crowd asks for a description of what the movie’s about. The lack of name stars and a plot that sounds more like neighborhood gossip than a rip-roaring yarn could be crippling; then again, those who need a bigger hook might find a sharp one lodged deep in the meat.
So if anyone asks you, tell them that the film is about a man and a woman dealing with moral responsibilities in a world where God may be absent. Sammy and Terry have been orphaned since childhood, and while Sammy is a regular churchgoer and Terry is a cranky agnostic, both are frustrated that they have neither a parent nor a pastor to establish firmly what’s right and what’s wrong. (There are shades here of The Cider House Rules, which had a similar theme.) Two-thirds of the way through the movie, Sammy’s minister (played by Lonergan himself) comes to talk with Terry about his lack of spirituality, and the scene is both funny and cracklingly relevant; Terry attempts to be polite and prickly while ultimately turning his distaste for the scolding back on his sister, pushing their relationship into one of its periodic down cycles.
If this description of conflicted folks grappling with faith and rage doesn’t play, tell people that You Can Count on Me is about a brother and sister who love each other deeply. Perhaps a prurient curiosity will lure potential viewers into an experience of remarkable purity.
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