In "The Truce", Francesco Rosi
achieves something amazing: He's made a big, extroverted historical drama, complete with vast landscapes and swarms of extras, that also succeeds in evoking the most fragile, constantly shifting emotional states of its characters.
"The Truce" has an authentic spiritual dimension, a passion to separate the essential from the ephemeral in its exploration of human nature.
Based on Primo Levi
's classic memoir "La Tregua" (The Reawakening), an account of the author's circuitous journey home to Italy after his liberation from Auschwitz in 1945, "The Truce" gets its strongest effects in some of its gentlest moments -- such as the expression of personal triumph on a man's face as he hands a precious slab of bread to a friend, realizing at that moment that despite all he's been through, his humanity hasn't been obliterated.
Levi, a research chemist by profession, described the experience of imprisonment and liberation with ferocious precision in three books, including "Survival in Auschwitz" and "Moments of Reprieve" in addition to "The Reawakening". Only a few scenes here depict the camps in operation, and then only in brief flashbacks, but their soul-squeezing atmosphere is vividly evoked in the behavior and body language of newly liberated prisoners.
Rosi has always had a special gift for using landscapes and enclosed architectural spaces expressively: the enveloping, official corridors of "Illustrious Corpses" (1976); the oddly canted perspectives of a sun-baked village perched on a mountaintop in "Christ Stopped at Eboli" (1979). In "The Truce", a journey from the cramped, gray chambers of Auschwitz into the desolate expanse of postwar Europe -- snaking across half the continent, deep into Russia and back out again, on foot and by train -- mirrors the expansion of constricted human spirits.
The larger mysteries of Levi's life, the evolution of the clenched prisoner of the memoirs into the acclaimed writer of playful essays and metafictional tales "The Periodic Table" and "The Monkey's Wrench" -- not to mention the forces that drove him to suicide in 1987 -- are beyond the scope of this, and perhaps any, film. But we see the beginnings of the process; and what's more, we feel them.
Rosi's sensuous approach turns out to be a perfect match for this material because so much of Levi's struggle to reconnect with the world is visual. Words like "seeing" or "observing" just don't measure up to the urgency of Levi's gaze; he seems to be interrogating reality, trying to peer all the way down into it, mining it for secrets that can help him reawaken.John Turturro
, as Levi, damps his trademark eruptive energy way down; the force of his personality remains, but as an impacted ember of intelligence. Speaking English with a soft Italian accent, Turturro shows the desperate intensity of Primo's watchfulness. "You are a scientist", a friend tells him. "You notice things". It's a description not only of a personality trait but also of the vocation Levi discovered at Auschwitz, to become a "witness" to the Holocaust. Where other prisoners burn their camp uniforms and seek to purge the experience from memory, Levi carefully saves his numbered prison shirt and wears it always under his new clothes.
There are aspects of Levi's account, especially its questing, analytical intelligence, that don't come across as powerfully onscreen as they do in print. When Turturro is required to recite some of Levi's written observations as lines of dialogue, his otherwise fine, fluid performance stiffens up.
"The Truce" is a great film in its ultimate effects, if not in every last detail. The decision to film the story in English, to build the film linguistically around Turturro, puts some of the European actors in supporting roles in an uncomfortable position, struggling with pronunciation when they should be living in the characters. Massimo Ghini
, as Primo's ebullient buddy Cesare, and Agnieszka Wagner
, as a radiant dumpling of a Russian nurse who plays a key role in reawakening Levi's senses, rise to the occasion. But Yugoslavian actor Rade Serbedzija
turns one of Levi's pivotal traveling companions, a domineering, shrewd operator known only as the Greek, into a sub-Zorba stereotype.
In this context, though, all particular complaints are quibbles. What matters most about "The Truce" is that Rosi's magnificent film is altogether worthy of its subject.
Director; Francesco Rosi
Screenplay; Francesco Rosi
, Sandra Petraglia
Based on the book "La Tregua" (The Reawakening) by:; Primo Levi
Producers; Leo Pescarolo
, Guido De Laurentiis
Directors of photography; Pasqualini De Santis, Marco Pontecorvo
Editors; Ruggero Mastroianni
Music; Luis Bacalov
Primo; John Turturro
Cesare; Massimo Ghini
The Greek; Rade Serbedzija
Daniele; Stefano Dionisi
Colonel Rovi; Teco Celio
Galina; Agnieszka Wagner
Flora; Lorenza Indovina
Running time -- 116 minutes
MPAA rating: R