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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Germinal

Starring: Gerard Depardieu, Miou-Miou
Director: Claude Berri
Rated: R
RunTime: 160 Minutes
Release Date: March 1994
Genres: Drama, Foreign

*Also starring: Renaud, Jean Carmet, Judith Henry, Jean-Roger Milo, Laurent Terzieff, Jean-Pierre Bisson, Bernard Fresson, Jacques Dacqmine

Review by Pedro Sena
3½ stars out of 4

There are many that feel that this is one of France's greatest novels of the century. Even if it is not, it certainly has been made into a film that is without a doubt, an excellent example of the quality of films that the equivalent of the Academie Francaise, is coming up with. Although the themes may come off a bit political, still this novel is as much an attack on the system as it is on the views that people undertake, in order to get something done. In the process, many things may happen which no one desired.

It is the turn of the century and things in France are not well, with the industrial revolution. France was slow moving into the new world, and it is paying a tough price. Their workers do not produce enough, and their ability to enter the international market, has caused the upper class many problems. Still, they survive on both fronts.

But the pressures that the lower classes in the mines are facing seem to get tougher, instead of better. No one can earn a living, except the well to do, whose antics do not go by unnoticed in this film.

In due time, with the advent of outsiders coming around, the working population gets aroused into a strike, and a revolution. And with this they hope that they could get better wages, and get the upper class to pay them better wages and cut down the punishments they face.

But the strike does not get resolved, and turns ugly. The upper class bring in replacement workers from Belgium, and continue with their work, however meager it may be. And the striking workers, lacking unity and cohesiveness of any kind, can not do much, except get angry. Their anger turns into a revolution and they begin tearing apart the mines that once provided them with jobs. Some of the owners are, however, honest. One neighboring mine owner explains that he has no stock brokers, and no outside support and is on his own, and his workers seem to be reasonably happy. But the main mine in question is being run by a ruthless man intent on showing his inferiors that they do not have what it takes to get the job done. And his family's main worry is the mother's desire to maintain her affair with the ruthless man, who is being courted to marry her own daughter so she can also get to him.

Amidst all this, are many ideals which tempt the working groups. A man who has some inner strength, Ettiene, becomes a reluctant leader, and since he is an outsider, he is a perfect man to speak up. The locals do not lose. And a socialist monger, expouses the ideals which would take away the excesses of the upper class, whose style is grotesque, and class-less. On an eventual day, the socialist gets to one of the mines and undoes a water duct, so it will eventually flood the mine and bust it. This unfortunate deed, ends up killing several miners, and placing many others in danger. And in the process, of trying to save the ones that might be alive several others are killed as well. The end result, is that the family that owns this particular mine leaves, and the mine is restarted. And the workers have returned to their pits.

It ends with one of the miner's wives, who has lost her whole family in the trenches, going to work, but forgiving Ettiene for having roused them. The people, the workers, have accepted their humility and returned to their meager ways. Nothing has changed, but this time, one is sure that they will not strike again, for quite some time.

Of special note is Maheu, with whom Etienne stays for some time, and who becomes a strong figure when the strike gets going. But, in an unfortunate face off with the French police, he is shot, and many innocents lose their life. The French upper class will have to pay for this one. But it never happens. The workers eventually need some food for their families and there is nothing else that can be done for work.

Emile Zola wrote a great novel, with the hope of creating some awareness in the situation. He never blamed anyone, directly, although the socialist seems to be the one that causes the most harm, something that many a political force in France never has liked. But, even though, the socialist ideal may have been right for this moment, the way it went about it was totally wrong. The French, still are today, very much a people's nation, but it is ( like everyone else ) hopelessly attached to romantic notions about anything. The grass is always greener in the other side. Maheu's wife's pardon of Etienne in the end, is a sad moment, but never a victory for anyone. The workers are still trapped. they have been beaten down, by the destruction. The upper class moves on, and never faces its due.

Extraordinary performances all around, specially Gerard Depardieu as Maheu and Renaud as Etienne. As is typical of any Claude Berri directed film, his characters are solid, and what could be a slow film, always proves to be dynamic in some sort of way. Some outstanding design in the cinematography helps as well. The film is quite claustrophobic when it needs to be, and is almost always trapped in an over crowded space, be it Maheu's house or elsewhere.

Outstanding music adds to this sad, but so very well done film. If not for a great novel, in lesser hands, this film would have come off preachy. Instead, it comes out as a great story, beautifully told, by a master film maker.

Copyright 1993 Pedro Sena

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