The Last Metro is Francis Truffaut's best movie in years. With its big international stars -- Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu -- and its Oscar nomination for "best foreign language picture," it could become the "art film" hit of 1981.
When Truffaut works on a small scale, in pictures like "The Story of Adele H." and "The Green Room," he tends to become intense -- to the point where many viewers just tune out. When he works on a larger scale, though -- with lots of characters and a big canvas -- he finds a freshness of humor and a richness of emotion that recall the best films of Jean Renoir.
"The Last Metro" is in this category, plunging into the world of theater as "Day for Night" plunged into the world of moviemaking. But it is theater under most unusual circumstances: Our heroes are struggling to keep their troupe alive during the Nazi occupation of Paris. No easy trick when, among other things, the director is Jewish and the local drama critic is a bald-faced fascist.
In all Truffaut pictures, the basic theme is survival. "The Last Metro" works delicate variations on this theme, punctuating a rich plot with Truffaut's habitual sympathy for all but the most rotten of his characters. The film has been criticized for its sentiment, yet it's a tough-minded movie, in its way. It takes nerve and intelligence to thread a path through Nazi territory without once lapsing into bitterness, blindness, or bathos.
More than 20 years ago, the young moviemakers of the French "new wave" rebelled against what they considered a stale and reactionary film establishment. Today, some critics complain that Truffaut is making the same kind of pictures he once deplored, while Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais (erstwhile colleagues of his) strike out more adventurous paths.
There is something to this charge, but not much.With his explorations of human resilience under adverse circumstances, Truffaut takes an idealistic stance that's just as bold as the revolutionary cynicism of Godard or the cinematic prestidigitation of Resnais. And that's why Truffaut remains among the most-loved movie artists in the world.
In the United States, one of Truffaut's biggest fans is Daniel Petrie, a fellow filmmaker best known for such TV hits as "Eleanor and Franklin" and "Syvil." Over lunch recently, he told me Truffaut is the director he'd most like to be -- though it's Ingmar Bergman whose work most "intimidates" him through sheer majesty.
Petrie has made quite a splash in the movie world lately. Fort Apache The Bronx is generating big box-office as well as big controversy, while Resurrection has garnered Oscar nominations for both its leading ladies, Ellen Burstyn and Eva Le Gallienne. Petrie is happy with all the attention he's getting, but he's distressed at some of the reasons -- particularly the protests and picketings aimed at his copand-robber film, which stars Paul Newman as the John Wayne of a besieged precinct house in New York City's worst neighborhood.
"Fort Apache the Bronx" is a flawed movie, with violence that's as lurid as its language, and a tendency to depict policemen as white knights valiantly struggling against villains with darker skins and thicker accents.As Petrie tells it, though, he chose the project because of positive values he wanted to bring out.
"I liked the story because it shows an ordinary man who becomes heroic," he says, "or at least does an heroic act. He's an unlikely hero. But when confronted with a difficult moral decision, that could cost his job or his life style, he chooses the right side. And I feel that if each of us does that, and behaves morally, the world will be a little better place."
That's why Petrie was "shocked" when protesters "tried to close us down because it was an 'immoral' movie." Indeed, he says, he hopes the film can help conditions improve in decayed areas, by calling further attention to the situation. "The Bronx is a metaphor for urban blight in any city," he says.
Petrie's other current film, "Resurrection," hasn't fared so well at the box office, though its multiple Academy Award nominations might help. It tells the unusual story of a woman who suddenly finds herself endowed with healing powers, which she uses for the good of others without claiming to understand them.
Again, Petrie says the crux of the story is a metaphor: "The healing is a metaphor for the kind of help every individual can give to others through love. It's as simple as that. If every one of us just tried to help our fellow man, in any way we can, in effect we'd be healing them."
So far, moviegoers are responding more to the explosive "Fort Apache" than to the contemplative "Resurrection." Petrie wishes both children would fare equally well, but takes the situation in stride. "Success in the marketplace isn't the most important thing," he muses. "The biggest thing is communicating.m "