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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

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1.  Steve Rhodes review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
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Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

GERMINAL (1993) is based on Emile Zola's tragic novel of the same name about the plight of the coal workers and especially of their families in 19th century France. It is an extremely moving tale that points to the ultimate hopelessness of the human condition.

The script by Claude Berri and Arlette Langmann and the direction by Claude Berri pull no punches. This is a movie that rarely considers the gray areas, but paints everything in sharp contrasts. Everything is either good or evil; there is no middle ground. Periodically, we glimpse the possibility of a few redeeming features in the rich, but generally they are portrayed as the devil incarnate. Although the number of contrasts the film metaphorically presents seem innumerable, the ones that struck me the most were: rich vs. poor, day vs. night, above ground vs. under ground, light vs. dark, opulence vs. frugality, green vs. brown, workers vs. bosses, and capitalism vs. unionism. If you watch for them, you can see many more, and this contrast provides an extremely effective and propagandistic albeit one sided reading of history.

As the film starts, Maheu (Gerard Depardieu whose best film is COLONEL CHABERT) gives a lantern to his new fellow worker Etienne Lantier (Renaud) and tells him, "Take good care of it. For a miner a lamp is his sun." From the beginning we find the ungrateful owners harassing the downtrodden workers. They yell at them for not fixing the timbering because that will mean the owners will have to pay something to their windows if they die. The workers in turn complain that they can not afford to take time to fix the timbering since they are paid by the amount of coal they bring up and they already have men, women, and children working in the mines so that their families will have enough food to ward off starvation.

The first part of this epic length film is devoted to how families live, e.g., everyone takes baths in front of everyone else in a tub in the living room, and how families just get enough food to keep from starving. The subtext in the first part is the growing threat of a strike. This movement is lead by Lantier, but there are others to his left who think a strike is not the best course. One, a communist I suppose, urges that the workers of the entire world must unite first in which case strikes will unnecessary since the bosses will be gone. The other, an anarchist I guess, says the only solution is to burn down all of the mines and factories and only out of this utter destruction will salvation arise. What a great bunch of choices Zola provides!

Certainly, religion is not the answer as Lantier says, "Who needs God and Heaven? We can change this lousy world." He goes on to say later, the problem is that, "capitalist tyranny is destroying us." The owner of the Voreux coal mine questions the value in a strike, telling the workers, "A strike is a disaster for everyone. Within a week you'll all starve. Then what will you do?" The other mine owner Deneulin (Bernard Fresson) puts it, "Before you make a living I must make a living first. The smallest increase will bankrupt me." The film show the rich owners living extravagantly and thereby giving lie to their words.

The second part of the film deals with the chaos that ensues once a massive strike is underway. The vicious way the strikers deal with workers who attempt to choose to work remind me of the controversy today where workers in some industries are forced to join unions and then the unions confiscate part of their wages as mandatory dues which the union bosses funnel into political action committees which support the politics of the union bosses.

The film ends well, but it is both dramatic and frightening. The acting is brilliant all round. Depardieu, Renaud and Miou-Miou as Maheu's wife Maheude are the best. There are many scenes where their acting is right on the edge. Miou-Miou is best in her anger scenes where she excels. The supporting cast is also good, except for the bosses, but then again, they are made to seem so shallow that it would be hard for an actor to shine playing one of them.

The cinematography by Yves Angelo is somber and striking, full of brown and black sepia tones. Watch how the camera and the light caress each of the poor people's faces. The sets by Thanh At Hoang and Christian Marti are evocative of great horror and misery. The most frightening scenes are those of the claustrophobic sets for the mines. The make-up by Joel Lavau and Nathalie Louichon provide just the right feel of the grit on a coal miner's face.

GERMINAL runs too long at 2:50, and I would have preferred editor Herve De Luze to have made the movie not such an epic length. The film is rated R for sex, nudity, and violence. Most of the film has little violence, but there are a few needlessly horrific scenes, including one of castration, that should have been edited out. Nevertheless, it is my judgment that the movie would be fine for most teenagers. I liked the movie, recommend it to you, and award it ***.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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