Hell’s Cadenza

There is a sublime moment in The Truce, Francesco Rosi’s awkward but moving epic about the chaotic aftermath of World War II. At the beginning of the movie, Primo Levi (John Turturro), a young Italian chemist, has been left behind in Auschwitz by the Germans. Through sheer luck, Levi has survived. He is later to become a superb writer – the outstanding memoirist of the Holocaust – but in the winter and spring of 1945, he cannot make his way home from Poland. He travels with Italian and Greek fellow survivors – a ragtag group of the larcenous and the merely fortunate – through a European civilization that has simply disappeared. In Poland and Russia, dazed German prisoners wander about or try to work in a desultory way; the black market rules everything; the victorious Red Army provides gentle but chaotic administration. Instead of sending the group south, the Russians put the former camp inmates on trains heading north toward Minsk. After a bit, the rail lines, torn up by the war, give out, and Levi and his friends wander across the countryside and settle beside a beautiful lake. For a while they are content just to sit. Then comes the happy moment: One of their group puts together a ramshackle orchestra, and as he begins to conduct Vivaldi, a gaggle of geese, as if on cue, indignantly walk away from the strange new sound. The Truce, which is based on Levi’s second book, is about the reawakening of the senses, the resurrection of humanity in men and women consigned to death. The survivors reacquaint themselves with food and sleep (but never a sleep without nightmare – Levi committed suicide 42 years later, in 1987); then they take up sensual pleasures of every kind. When the geese magically bestir themselves in response to music, both art and nature spring to life at once.

Francesco Rosi, now 76, is the last remaining genius of the Italian neorealist movement. Though Rosi has often worked on a large canvas (earlier in his career, he made celebrated movies about the Mafia and political corruption), he is perhaps best known here for the intimate social drama Three Brothers and the superb movie version of Bizet’s Carmen. In The Truce, Rosi is working under tremendous constraints. He has to create a peculiar moment of disorder, a moment when civilization exists only through its half-remembered echoes, its scattered fragments. The Truce is set in transit camps and in makeshift medical centers, in trains and on the road, and the spectacle is modest rather than moving. Rosi captures the oddity of people rushing to and fro without any clear sense of what to do with themselves. Shyly, tentatively, the shattered camp survivors and the exhausted Russians reach for sex and pleasure. The movie is a series of strange, anomalous moments; it’s an epic of gestures and uncompleted acts.

There are other difficulties. How do you shoot a post-Holocaust film? At the beginning, at Auschwitz, four horsemen approach the camp out of the mist and white snow. It is the quartet of young Soviet soldiers who led the Red Army into the undefended camp in January 1945. The white-on-white image is almost abstract, like something out of Fargo – the soldiers don’t appear to be on a road but seem merely suspended in white. In such shots, the great cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis comes close to aestheticizing the concentration camp. It is a sin, but a forgivable sin, I suppose – the camp scenes themselves are shot in tones of the richest gray, as if De Santis, even in this place, could not resist beauty. Later on, however, the lusciousness doesn’t require apology – beauty is one of the things that coaxes the ex-inmates back to life. At the transit camp, a Russian soldier, sword slicing the air, entertains the survivors with a very balletic tap to Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek.” When they are wandering about, Levi and his friends encounter some little Fragonard babies playing naked in the sunshine.

It’s a film of great images, not a dramatic work. Levi’s The Truce (known in its American edition as The Reawakening) is an account of adventure and vagabondage, and by its very nature the material is anecdotal. Men and women encountered on the road or in a transit camp loom up before the author, powerful in their deviousness and charm, and then abruptly disappear in pursuit of their own destiny. The movie repeats this fragmentary construction. There is only Levi himself to hold it together, and Levi is a quiet and guarded young man – an observer, a writer in the making.

Turturro has a long, lean face, liquid eyes, and a mouth drawn small and tight in fear. He watches and holds himself in. In the early scenes of the movie, he is so clenched, so alarmed by his survival, he appears ready to ward off a blow from a camp guard. He is a child with his face at the candy-shop window, staring and staring, longing to break through to people. Levi is not a physically courageous man, but the pride is there, even a haughty sense of his own worth, and when pushed, he will assert himself and speak with great firmness of principle – it is the future interpreter of the Holocaust’s depredations who speaks. Turturro gives a sincere, entirely committed performance as Levi. It is, unfortunately, a rather limited piece of acting. We know why he’s doing what he’s doing, but we may think he still needs to find some way of giving the character more life and variety. As a writer, Primo Levi has his own kind of gentle vivacity; Turturro hasn’t found a way of getting that side of Levi into the performance. One feels he is attempting to hold our attention by sheer force of will, by an exercise of high-mindedness rather than imagination.

Levi is attracted to people bolder than himself – such as the self-sufficient tough guy known as “The Greek,” a tremendous scoundrel and operator played by the great Yugoslavian actor Rade Serbedzija (from Before the Rain and The Saint). Serbedzija, a big, humorous man with a beautiful beard and flashing eyes, speaks in three or four languages at once, and he’s dazzling in any language. He looks at Turturro’s Levi with contempt. The Greek, we are to understand, has a low-minded and mercenary talent: He has a genius for survival. For a while, as if chosen by God, he takes care of the hapless Levi, who will, in the end, turn out to be survival’s true genius. The Truce is not as exciting as other epics, but it preserves the memory of a man who discovered himself at the moment of Europe’s dissolution and in his quiet way triumphed over the worst the century had to offer.

Hell’s Cadenza