"La Sarrasine" does deserve credit for its general conception, some of its acting (Ninetta, the wife; Pasquale, the "musician;" Lamoureux, the Italians ally; the sympathetic reporter; and Nick, the young Italian boarder, often help create distinctive, memorable scenes, and embody roles that others merely suggest), its low key approach--but only when its stuck to, and the journal writing aspect of the narration often adds warmth and caring to a generally gray, depressed, and cold scenario.
But more to the point is this Canadian film's many lapses. First, the title is more than just incoherent. The viewer must assume that "the Saracen" refers to Clorinda, the lover/victim of Tancred, in the Italians Montreal puppet show. But how does this align itself with the racial discrimination story on the screen? Is Guiseppe, the protagonist, supposed to be in Clorinda's position, and how are his French victimizers supposed to be Tancred? No way. Brain strain from any angle.
Second, "La Sarrasine" is far too instructional, and linear to make convincing the plight of Italian immigrants in Quebec. Except for Lamoureux, the French are viewed as narrow-minded, puritanical bigots; while the Italians, except for Guiseppe's defense committee (viewed as dry politicos) are embracers of life, liberalism, and a sexuality, which is contrary to the period. And so we get handed us a harsh French priest who sees Montreal as "a cesspool" and an ice cold Mrs. Lemieux who must be the extreme opposite of her Italian counterpart and her liberal brother.
Then there is the pivotal crime scene. Are we to believe that Guiseppe, with all his patience, leadership qualities, and tolerance cannot fend off a drunken greengrocer (shown as out of character monster) without shooting him dead? And why didn't he call the cops, as he threatened. Is it his stereotypy Italian hot temper which subdues his vaunted reason? No wonder his actions are off screen and no wonder they sound staged.
To Ninetta, Guiseppe's wife, his action is irrational and perhaps related to his own bullying of her. Yet, and this is another problem, her sustained battle to save her husband is the story's center. Yes, it makes sense on the level of duty--and her self-sacrificing commitment may feed the narrative, but does not give it life.
For Ninetta's strongest passions are on behalf of herself, both in opposition to her too authoritarian husband, and in her desire to maintain what independence she has achieved (5 boarders, puppet work, secretary) in Montreal--far away from the dependency of her old world family. Yes, living her own life does include supporting and being near her imprisoned husband, but except for the one scene when she laughs ticklishly in bed, whatever love she bears for Guiseppe must be indirect (note his constantly shifting tense eyes) and certainly must be deficient in passion (he slaps her across his jail cell).
But the flatness in "La Sarrasine" exists also in the stagy scenery, and a kind of enveloping grayness of landscape, both mental and physical. Many of the interior spaces seem strangely empty as do many street scenes. And the relationship between the Italians and the French, both at the bottom of the social ladder, seem too grim. The French, apart from Lamoureux, are drawn as way too narrow both in their religious and cultural attitudes and postures.
Missing in "La Sarrasine" is a moral center. Partly, I think, because it shuns the complexity of the political for the simplicity of the personal. Surely the true racist impulse in Montreal does not begin with the French or more accurately, the Quebecois. Who rules Canada? Certainly the French are as oppressed by the English, as the Italians by the French. But this is obscured by the narrative. And the journal mode, while offering some warm and human moments, foregrounds the focus on a few overly-dramatized, and rather extreme lives. Ninetta is even made to displace the whole defense committee and its fund-raising, which might have been shown to bring the two communities together. But no such public statement is made by the film, so that the private place where the viewer begins is precisely where she or he ends up.
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