I saw 'L'Âtre' ('The Hearth') in October 2005 at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Sacile, Italy. After its original release (which received little fanfare), 'The Hearth' was forgotten until a print was discovered in 1984 by Cinémathéque Française.
This dead-earnest drama purports to depict the grim life of French peasants. I can't vouch for its accuracy, but it's certainly grim. In the opening sequence, a desperate Provençal mother commits suicide on Christmas Eve. Feeling depressed yet? Wait, there's more!
Jean and Bernard are peasant brothers, rivals for the affections of pretty Arlette. Jean is the more artistic of the two brothers; he yearns to be a sculptor, and as his artistic career prospers he moves to Paris. There are some scenes contrasting Paris with the provincial countryside which Jean has left behind, with the City of Light depicted as sordid and jaded, and the rural area depicted sentimentally.
Despite Jean's success and newfound urbanity, he continues to pine for Arlette ... as Bernard grows covetous. When Arlette writes a billet-doux to Jean, Bernard steals it and tears it up. Bernard and his elderly grandfather are deeply committed to their land, which has been in the family for centuries, and Bernard regards Jean's move to the city as a betrayal of that heritage.
This film reminded me of a French version of 'The Archers'. There are several unnecessary subplots, calculated to show us the humble humanity of French peasants but mostly succeeding in distracting us from the main story. After the death of the brothers' grandmother, there is a protracted sequence of her funeral procession through the countryside: photographed quite beautifully, but ultimately adding nothing to the film's story and little to the mise-en-scene.
I found this tragic film deeply depressing; so much so that the beautiful photography and elaborate montages impressed me far less than they might have done in a more uplifting film. My rating for 'The Hearth' is a lowly 4 out of 10.
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