But once I started on the first DVD, I found it difficult to stop watching. The story of Jacquou Féral ('Jacquou le Croquant', which I understand translates roughly as 'Jacquou the Wretch') starts in 1819, after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, in the Restoration period where French nobles attempted to regain the privileges that the French Revolution had taken from them.
Jacquou's parents are tenant farmers, who owe half of their produce to the cruel Count de Nansac who owns their land, and are frequently robbed of more than they owe. Not having any legal means of defending his family against the frequent abuses, Jacquou's father rebels against the Count, and pays dearly for it. Being robbed of his father, the story focuses on young Jacquou (8 years old in the first four movies; 20 in the last two) as he tries to survive in a world that offers him no justice, and where he waits for an opportunity for vengeance against the Count.
The story is intriguing in much the same way as The Grapes of Wrath: it offers a touching social commentary of a fascinating period in time, and provides a valuable insight about the origins, spirit and convictions of a people. Having seen it, I felt a new appreciation for this part of French history.
More importantly, the story is also well told. While the whole story arc takes up over 9.5 hours, it doesn't feel slow or needlessly drawn out (which ironically is a criticism often levelled against the 2007 remake, which tells the whole story in under 2.5 hours...). To a large extent, this is due to the excellent acting from both Jacquous, Eric Damain (Jacquou as a child) and Daniel Le Roy (as an adult), but also the entire cast around them, especially Jacquou's mother (played by Simone Rieutor, who has great chemistry with Eric Damain) and Henri Nassiet as the kind vicar Bonal. There is scarcely a weak moment to be found in the series, which is quite an accomplishment given its length and the number of characters involved. It is precisely the strength of the performances and the depth of the story that distinguishes this rendition favourably from its more superficial 2007 remake.
Of course, the package isn't perfect. For one, the visuals look a little dated after almost 40 years, and the whole experience is certainly less slick and less pretty than its modern remake. And it is also clear that both the author of the original novel (Eugène Le Roy) and the director of this series (Stellio Lorenzi) firmly subscribe to the politics behind the struggle against privilege, and are willing to turn a blind eye to the less equitable or noble aspects of it.
But all in all, I'd recommend this series for anyone who has even an inkling of interest in French history, and especially where the roots of the French sense of solidarity lie. Or more generally, anyone who's willing to spend some time on a well told story.