The late Claude Berri was a true Jacques-of-all movie trades, an omnipresent figure in French cinema. But since most of the projects he had fingers in never opened Stateside, we only know him from his early and (from years later) his more prestigous pics as director. It’s a mixed blessing since so many of these pics don’t live up to their promise. His well regarded Marcel Pagnol adaptations are scenic, but stiff. His mighty attempt at Zola’s stupendous GERMINAL is buried under its own prestige.* And his Jewish-life-in-France comedies tend to be too damn cute. So, it’s a relief to see that his famous debut feature looks both tougher & funnier than you might recall, almost Truffaut worthy. The autobiographical story takes us to 1943 when Berri, a hard-to-handle 9 year-old Jewish kid, was sent to hide in the country with fake Grandparents as a good Catholic boy. Fortunately, Grandpa is played by that great shaggy dog of an actor, Michel Simon, a true force of nature. In many ways, he’s the nonconformist gramps of your dreams, unless you happen to be Jewish since just past his endearing ways is a dyed-in-the-wool Anti-Semite. Berri gets a natural swing going between these two (it’s very Charlie Chaplin/Jackie Coogan) and doesn’t push the emotional buttons too hard at any point, settling to show how tough it is for any city kid to survive rural hazing and acknowledging the gray areas that allow a sweet, caring old man to also be a bigot of the first order. It’s a very grown-up kind of sentimental pic. (Be sure to watch the hilarious short subject, THE CHICKEN, included on the Criterion DVD edition.)
*READ ALL ABOUT IT: GERMINAL, Emile Zola’s epic of coal mining, early communist organizers, company towns and social revolt, is truly a hair-raising read. Berri turned it into an expensive dud. Get a good translation and read yourself a great movie. Then try to see THE ORGANIZER (I COMPAGNI)/'63, Mario Monicelli 's magnificent work with Marcello Mastrioanni in one of his greatest roles. It shows just the sort of film GERMINAL could have been.