Not so much Racism as Strategies for Gaining Acceptance
I agree with the previous reviewer's insightful comments (15 January 2005), except for some inaccuracies and misinterpretations. This is an excellent TV movie that uses a French provincial town in the 1890s to examine the enduring nature of social issues. However...
1) The movie never states that the doctor's father is "a plantation and slave owner." Rather it implies that his father is THE ADMIRAL, whose bank reference letter he bears in order to effect the loan necessary for purchasing the white doctor's practice, and whose portrait he keeps on his bedroom dresser.
2) Nor is it stated that his father "had married a slave." His mother was merely one of the slave-owning father's black mistresses.
3) It doesn't appear to me that he has a "strategy is to first conquer the mayor's trust." Ostracized because of his race by everyone except the schoolmistress, Léa, he's about to pack up and leave when the Mayor's daughter is accidentally shot.
4) The local bourgeoisie and consequently the townspeople accept him only after he saves the Mayor's daughter's life. And even then his relationship with the Mayor involves a certain amount of hypocrisy on both sides.
In the scenes where he's feted by the Mayor and other dignitaries and pursued by the Mayor's libertine sister he allows himself to be seduced by their hypocrisy to the point that he begins to agree with their opinions, deftly symbolized by his parroting their anti-Dreyfusard sentiments, even though he has a lot more in common with the plight of Dreyfus than with the bourgeois clique that runs the town.
The only person who understands how the rich use him as a kind of pet "nègre" although his maidservant, Clémence (wonderfully played by Miriam Boyer), recognizes the game the bourgeoisie are playing is the woman that truly loves him, Léa (Barbara Schulz). But he's on a roller coaster ride of inflated self-worth, basking in their supposed approval, and she can't get through to him.
The previous reviewer correctly notes that the incident when the doctor sees the African tribes people caged and mistreated in a Colonial Exposition (not in a zoo) finally makes him realize that ruling clique's acceptance is not sincere. This makes him angry at everyone, including Léa. But his anger is not only about his desire for revenge; it flows from a deep self-loathing as he realizes that he's made himself ridiculous by affecting bourgeois attitudes and mannerisms in return for their approval.
The only thing left to him is trust of the common people, who, because of his skill as a doctor and his down-to-earth bedside manner, now unconditionally accept him. But he's so humiliated and angry, he lumps them in with the others.
The point the director makes here is that manipulating people into "acting (voting) against their own interests" is an old technique that basically says: if you think and act like us, you'll be rich and famous like us. We've seen it used to perfection in the modern political arena by reactionaries such as Karl Rove.
In the final Cholera sequence, there's a kind of mutual acceptance of each other's humanity as the whole town struggles under the doctor's leadership to stem the tide of the Cholera epidemic. At this point, when everybody, including the Mayor, is dying, there's not much point in maintaining pretense.
If they only did made-for-TV movies like this in the US, there might be a greater degree of self-awareness and empathy in this country, especially about social issues.
As Barack Obama said, when asked about his favorite Bible verse in a recent debate: "Well, I think it would have to be the Sermon on the Mount, because it expresses a basic principle that I think we've lost over the last six years.
Part of what we've lost is a sense of empathy towards each other. We have been governed in fear and division, and you know, we talk about the federal deficit, but we don't talk enough about the empathy deficit, a sense that I stand in somebody else's shoes, I see through their eyes. People who are struggling trying to figure out how to pay the gas bill, or try to send their kids to college. We are not thinking about them at the federal level."
That's what this TV film shows: that no matter how hard the doctor tries to deny his basic human empathy in order to be accepted by the rich, he can't do it because he isn't that kind of person.
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