What does it mean to be a mensch?
As anyone who reads this newspaper knows, it’s not the same thing as being “a man,” that rather less elusive category that obsesses American culture.
Two fascinating new films in this year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema series, which opens on March 3, offer strikingly different answers to the question. Although the protagonists of both films are male, as are the filmmakers, the responses transcend gender or, perhaps, sidestep it.
Emmanuel Finkiel, whose previous films have frequently graced both the Rendezvous series and the N.Y. Jewish Film Festival, confronts the issue head-on, beginning with his new film’s title(s). For its U.S. premiere, it is called “A Decent Man,” but the French title, which catches the regretful, melancholic tone of the film more accurately, is “I Am Not a Bastard.”
The film’s protagonist Eddy (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a deeply troubled working-class guy whose life is on the rocks from the film’s opening. He has a drinking problem, is estranged from his wife Karine (Mélanie Thierry) and can’t hold a job. His son Noam (Johan Soulé) rebukes him, “You never keep your promises.” It’s all bad until the night he gets into a street brawl and is stabbed by an unknown assailant. Strangely, victimhood revivifies him, his wife and kid rally round, her employer gives him a job and the police are eager to find his assailant.
They arrest Ahmed (Driss Ramdi), whose life is only slightly less chaotic than Eddy’s. Eddy half-heartedly picks him out of a line-up and the wheels of the French criminal justice system begin to grind both men into pulp. In one of the film’s subtler touches of irony, both we and Eddy have seen Ahmed earlier in the film in a video for training sales personnel; shrewdly, Finkiel offers only oblique references to this clue.
As Eddy begins to have doubts about his identification of Ahmed, his newfound sense of well-being begins to flag and his old problems of anger management, alcohol and insecurity begin to rise once more to the forefront. He’s clearly torn over doing the right thing by his family and by the law. He’s also absolutely unable to discern what the right thing would be. Finkiel portrays this downward spiral with a certain chilling detachment as it moves towards an inevitably tragic ending.
Back in an era of old-school paranoia, Fritz Lang masterfully structured his film noir masterpieces around the inability of his characters to see beyond their own self-images to make contact with one another. He would trap them in their forbidding environments with slowly pivoting camera movements, like butterflies pinned to a board.
Finkiel has found an artful modern equivalent, using multiple reflections that obscure his characters, multiple video screens, recurring long shots of alienating glass walls revealing the heartless compartmentalization of urban life, and constantly shifting background/foreground relationships that suggest a similar failure to connect. His characters, like Lang’s, almost never make eye contact, remaining hauntingly unaware of their shared humanity. “A Decent Man” is a bleak parable of the failures in modern urban society to see and acknowledge the face of the Other, and a striking visualization of the thinking of another Jew who shares Finkiel’s first name, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.
Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, the writer-director of “The Story of Judas,” is a French filmmaker originally from Algeria, of Berber descent. He might seem a rather unlikely writer-director-star for a profoundly philo-Semitic retelling of the story of Jesus in which the most vilified of the disciples turns out to be the hero, but that is exactly what his new film is.
“The Story of Judas,” another U.S. premiere incidentally, opens with a lone figure slowly climbing a steep hill, the soundtrack filled with the sounds of the wind and his labored breathing. Judas (played by the director) has come to help Jesus (Nabil Djedouani) return to his followers after a 40-day fast and retreat, carrying the slender rabbi back down the hill on his back. From the film’s outset, Ameur-Zaïmeche emphasizes the close relationship between the two men, predicated on obvious and real affection.
Ameur-Zaïmeche has reimagined this familiar story in original and compelling ways. The followers of Jesus are clearly Jews, political radicals who oppose the tyranny of their Roman occupiers; but they are seen explicitly as merely one political faction among many within the Jewish world of Palestine and, although the film’s sympathies lie with them, the alternative positions are presented fairly and without rancor. It’s the Romans who are clearly the forces of darkness in this film, represented by a Pontius Pilate (Régis LaRoche), who is a pillar of sardonic cynicism, and his chief adjutant, a Machiavellian schemer called Menenius (Xavier Mussel, in a silky, ingratiating performance that barely conceals the character’s sinister intentions).
In the midst of plots and counterplots, Jesus’ low-key common sense and Judas’ profound loyalty to his leader become the film’s moral center. Ameur-Zaïmeche underlines this with his deliberate pacing, visual references to the great Renaissance paintings of the story, and a brilliantly constructed soundtrack that emphasizes natural sounds to the exclusion of almost any music. The film is filled with ghostly echoes of the Straub-Huillet “Moses and Aaron,” Pasolini’s “Gospel According to Matthew” and the heightened spiritual concentration of Robert Bresson, but it succeeds on its own terms splendidly.
The 21st Rendezvous with French Cinema, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance, runs from March 3-13 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. For more information, go to filmlinc.org.