by Peter Byrne
A Film Review
La Strada di Levi/Primo Levi's Journey, director Davide Ferrario, screenplay by Marco Belpoliti and Davide Ferrario, production company Rossofuoco, Italy 2006, 92 minutes.
(Swans - April 23, 2007) Subsequent barbarities and narrow polemics have begun to blur the outline of the European Holocaust. Clashing demagogues make it their soapbox. Lexicographers wage armchair battle over terminology. No better time than the present to re-read Primo Levi's Se Questo é un Uomo ("If This is a Man"), written in 1946 (US title: Survival in Auschwitz). His zero flamboyance and cool pain will clear away the wordy rubble. In the first two-dozen pages the great Italian writer sets down the Nazi recipe. This is how you reduce a man to something less than a man.
The Red Army liberated Auschwitz in January 1945. Levi's wayward journey home to Turin would cover more than three thousand miles and take ten months. The war hadn't ended when, with hundreds of others, he happily got on a train that to his dismay ended up taking him east and north away from the front and farther and farther from home. Levi, always a realist, quickly understood that freedom wasn't a joyful dance and that survival came with yet more burdens to bear.
The writer would recount his interminable trip in La Tregua/The Truce (1963). Despite the horrors around him, what he wrote was a travel book. It hadn't the airlessness of If This is a Man, or its urgency to make us share what happened at Auschwitz. The Truce provided a breathing space where literary composition could be indulged. Levi described how he and his fellow passengers made out against the different backdrops that the endless stopovers provided. Much less a connoisseur of place than of human diversity, he's attentive to how people act when thrown together. In this he has a precious gift of acceptance, perhaps enhanced by his training as a chemist. Never does Levi tidy up the shaggy edges of a person to fit him into a category, moral or political. People simply loom up in their uniqueness, not to be explained away or judged.
Francesco Rosi dramatized The Truce in a film of 1997. John Turturro was impressive as Levi. But the critics both in Italy and abroad thought the adaptation ill conceived and the film flat. For their part, Ferrario and Belpoliti chose to make a documentary. It's untraditional in that it refrains from reconstructing the journey with photos and archival footage, using little of both, mainly surviving shots of Levi. The film stays resolutely in the present, but it's a third millennium remarkably unpeopled and nostalgic. La Strada di Levi is concerned with individuals only as background or curiosities.
The director and scriptwriters followed the route of the writer's return and shot what interested them along the way. With their eye for the whimsical and the earthy picturesque, this makes for a flimsiness that contrasts with the gravity that marked Levi's every word. The film is actually pretty, a product of carefully adjusted filters; it overflows with attractive textures and colors. Nothing could be farther from Levi's concentration on the essential. At the same time, the makers themselves point up this divergence by constantly using voice over (Davide Ferrario's) that reads from The Truce.
Ferrario and Belpoliti adopted a concept that sits on their documentary like something extraneous, a bright idea that never takes on substance. The period between the fall of the Berlin wall and September 11, 2001, is supposed to parallel that between the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War. Whatever the insight in this metaphor -- and there's not much -- the film does no more than announce it, like a brilliant remark over a café table. To tie the title Levi gave his book to geopolitics is far-fetched. The American edition went in another direction and gave La Tregua the title The Reawakening. Levi uses the word truce frequently and in many senses. Perhaps the deepest occurs near the end of the book:
The footloose months on the edge of civilization had been hard. But we saw them now as a truce, an interval when we were fully available to life. It was a gift that fate had granted us never to be repeated.
The young Primo Levi was a depressive before he ever left Italy. His concentration camp experience turned his pessimism into a wound that would never heal. Not even his love of mankind could cure him. It was no surprise that he committed suicide in 1987. To put his life in the context of Ground Zero pushes whimsicality too far.
Whereas Levi's journey was from living death to uncertain life, this 2005 film junket is that of short-attention-span tourists with cameras. The problem was obvious. Levi's point of view is astutely balanced. His presence fills our minds while he never takes his eyes from the people around him, forever assessing their humanity. He inventories precisely what the masters of Auschwitz set out to eradicate. In this film we feel neither his affectionate regard on individuals nor his submerged subjectivity.
As a pretext for documentary making, the choice could be justified to revisit, with a copy of The Truce in hand, the route of Levi's long journey of sixty years ago. Ferrario and Belpoliti had every right to take another point of view from his. He wanted to see how human beings had come through the most total war in history. The filmmakers have an eye for the quirky and incongruous, and are mainly concerned with places and how they have or haven't changed. But it's a pity their interest is fitful and shallow, amassing a batch of trivia.
Poland merited better than seeking out the veteran director Andrej Wadja and having him tell us that the 1950s steel mill at Nowa Huta had crumbled. It was cute, but nothing more, to show streets named John-Paul II and Solidarnosc meeting in Gdansk. Certainly Poland, Hungary, and Romania, because of new connections to the European Union -- strangely never mentioned -- are on the move. Belarus and Moldavia, on the other hand, slumber still. See their picture postcard oxcarts.
But is this news? Is anyone surprised to hear that Ukrainians are at odds with their Russian speaking fellow citizens? That they have fish markets like the one we are shown? Or that there are crackpot neo-Nazis in Germany and badly housed migrants in Austria? Ferrario and Belpoliti can't resist stopping at Chernobyl that Levi had passed by without notice in its pre-nuclear accident obscurity. They show us a Ferris wheel and an aerial photo of the ravaged plant and then talk about a child sickened by radioactivity who found a good home in Italy. The Soviet nuclear plants? The future of nuclear energy in Eastern Europe? Our filmmakers don't want to get heavy. Like tourists they take their photos and hurry on. They make the long sheds of Auschwitz under the snow look like a delicate watercolor. It's a kind of beauty that works against truth.
This documentary has been viewed with deference at the festivals of London, Toronto and Rome. Let's hope that its oblique approach to the Shoah doesn't reinforce the received idea that horrors like those of Auschwitz were too overwhelming to be directly expressed in art. Primo Levi disproved that as early as 1946.
The makers of La Strada di Levi/Primo Levi's Journey are like workmen erecting a statue in a city square. They have heard that the figure portrayed is a great man. Far be it from them not to concur. They are full of respect. But don't ask them why exactly the great man should be respected or what in fact he had to say. They whistle while they work.
We are asking for your help. If you consider our work valuable, please send us a financialThank you. Remember, we are making this work available to you free of charge and advertising.