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TERRE, LA (THE EARTH) (director: Andre Antoine; screenwriter: Emile Zola/from the novel “The Earth” by Emile Zola; cinematographers: René Guychard/René Gaveau; music: Adrian Johnston; cast: Armand Bour (Père Fouan), René Alexandre (Jean), Germaine Rouer (Françoise), Jeanne Briey (Lise), Jean Hervé (Buteau), Milo (Hyacinthe, Jesus Christ), Berthe Bovy (Olympe, La Trouille), Jeanne Grumbach (La Cognette), Emile Desjardins (The Shepherd); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; Milestone; 1921-France-silent)
“Highly regarded as one of France’s more significant silent films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Highly regarded as one of France’s more significant silent films, a realistic harsh slice-of life drama (much like King Lear) that was considered lost but when found recently it was donated by the Gosfilmofond of Moscow to the Royal Belgian Archive to be restored. It’s based on the novel “The Earth” by Emile Zola (1840-1902), and is shot on location in the plain of Beauce near Chartres, the Cloyes region where Zola’s novel took place. Longtime theater director who turned filmmaker later on in life, Andre Antoine (“Israël”/”The Girl from Arles”), directs in a naturalistic fashion this compelling French family drama exposing the cruel nature of peasants. Antoine had staged La Terre at his Théatre Antoine in 1901.

Old farmer Père Fouan (Armand Bour) and his elderly wife Rose are too old to work the land on his small farm in Beauce and they therefore divide up the property to their two sons–Hyacinthe, called Jesus Christ (Milo), who has a pesty trouble-making daughter La Trouille (Berthe Bory), and his brother Louis called Buteau (Jean Hervé). A lawyer draws up the contract that calls for regular payments of a pension–the parents keep the house until they die and care of the elderly parents by way of eggs, wine and firewood. Fouan also has a cold-hearted compulsive cleanliness freak of a married daughter who is included in the inheritance, and an elderly sister who is enraged he didn’t leave her a share and from hereon wants nothing to do with him. When both sons, the wastrel drunkard poacher Jesus Christ and Buteau who is a good-for-nothing hot-headed brute, renege on their obligations, their mom dies and their dad faces undue hardships. A stranger peasant named Jean (René Alexandre) works on the big farm in the rural area and marries Françoise (Germaine Rouer), who is the younger sister of Lise (Jeanne Briey). She marries Buteau, the father of her child, and they live in the house she half owns with her sis. An argument between the sisters results in tragedy, as Lise becomes as cruel as her husband and attacks her better natured sister. In the meantime Fouan, who has a hard time dealing with his corrupt sons while shuttling back and forth between their humble cottages, becomes homeless after his pension is robbed by them and dies alone from heartbreak in the field.

The family is torn apart over greed for the land in this grim 19th century tableau of rustic life among the peasants, as Zola points out the earth is eternal and if cared for properly should provide a good life for its inhabitants. The author, a champion of the common man, has a passion for realism and social justice, and is critical of the French law being status quo and that its conservative institutions fail to protect the weaker ones from those who can intimidate them. This bleak drama seems tiresome in parts but mostly excites because it looks more modern than most silent films and the unaffected acting is seemingly natural (which went against the times) and is quite good.

REVIEWED ON 11/21/2008 GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”