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TRUCE, THE (Tregua, La)(director/writer: Francesco Rosi; screenwriters:Tonino Guerra/Sandro Petraglia/based on the book “The Reawakening,” by Primo Levi; cinematographers: Pasqualino De Santis/Marco Pontecorvo; editor: Ruggero Mastroianni; cast: John Turturro (Primo Levi), Massimo Ghini (Cesare), Rade Serbedzija (The Greek), Stefano Dionisi (Daniele), Teco Celio (Colonel Rovi), Agnieszka Wagner (Galina), Roberto Citran (Unverdorben); Runtime: 115; Miramax Films; 1996-Italy)
“Primo Levi’s autobiography.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A slow, meandering train ride back from the dead for the Jews liberated by the Russians from the concentration camp of Auschwitz, Poland, towards the end of WW11, in April of 1945. The 75-year-old Marxist Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, Three Brothers) directs this morose English-language film. It was filmed in the Ukraine, supposedly in the same places as the events. The subject of this bio is the 29-year-old Primo Levi, a native of Turin, Italy, a chemist and author of many books on his confinement, including this autobiographical look at his survival and what it means to be liberated. He’s ably played by John Turturro. The film also offers Levi’s lifelong take on what the dignity of man means.

The story told should be like a meditation, as the introspective Primo wants to get it out of his system what it meant to be a Jewish prisoner in a death camp and how it was unbearable to come out of that camp and think that you could still be human. Turturro plays the tragic role with an understandable quietude (his voice barely rises above a whisper) and with an emotional understatement, conveying a deep sadness in his gestures and deep reflections, showing how difficult it is for him to see the light of day again without feeling atrophied and lost. He is the reason for any success the film has. Unfortunately, the rest of the film as worthy an effort as it is, is not compelling. It shot itself in the foot by trying to tell a conventional story while the more powerful and personal tale of Primo Levi was somewhat sacrificed by these very typical Hollywood episodic scenes of how the other characters reacted to their liberation and with Rosi’s added attempt to attain some comic relief through these diverse characters. He, thereby, diminished the power of the concentration camp story. The meditations of Primo Levi and soberness of the story were the thing to shoot for here, and all one has to do is read Primo’s book and see how much more gripping those images were on paper than were these tedious screen images.

Thefilm significantly begins as mounted Soviet cavalrymen appear on a hill outside of the camp they are liberating, where the buildings are left burning from the battle just fought, as the fleeing SS guards leave the bewildered Holocaust prisoners behind who are left looking up in awe at their liberators.

When in Cracow, waiting to get a train home while placed in the transit camps by the Russians, Primo is allowed to wander in and out of the camp and he meets in town a hustler and pleasure-seeker, known by the sobriquet of ‘The Greek (Rade),’ who steers the frightened and unworldly Italian youngster to places of food; and, he gets him to carry his heavy duffel bag and to sell clothes for him as payment for his expertise in surviving. The Greek soon abandons him, admonishing him for being hopeless, as he leaves him with this advice: “Before you can forage for food, you need shoes on your feet.” Primo is left with a strange sort of respect and admiration for his survival abilities, while also resenting him for leaving him in such a lurch.

The Russians are portrayed in a somewhat enigmatic light: a positive one for their role as liberators and providers of food and shelter, but they are also ridiculed for their rigid ways and for being a nation that is used to slavery as a normal way of life. For the most part, at least, in this film, the Russians are shown to have no bias against the survivors for being Jews. There is only one bias incident, it is where the Poles in a crowded marketplace shun Primo because he is a Jew from Auschwitz who is trying to sell them a shirt.

The Russians continually round the survivors up cattle-like and put them on trucks without telling them what is going on, but the survivors feel relieved when the Russians are sent to the front and they are left in the transit camps only with the civilians. The survivors just can’t wait for the war to be over and for them to get on the train and go home. Luckily for Primo, while waiting for transport, he gets to work in a hospital as a doctor (labeling the medicines) and develops a crush on a luscious blonde nurse (Wagner), but is too tongue-tied to tell this sometime prostitute, with a heart of gold, how he feels about her.

Music is the universal language of healing and when the Russians put on a musical show for their victory celebration, with one of their soldiers dancing like Fred Astaire to the Irving Berlin tune ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ it brings joy to the survivors en masse as they begin to dance with each other.

Primo, in proud defiance, wears his concentration camp coat with the Jewish star on it as if it was a badge of honor. He wants to show others who he is and let them sort out for themselves what to think of him. He becomes an onlooker, observing the destruction left in the wake of the Nazi terror throughout Europe as the train is finally there and it follows the map shown onscreen across Poland and Russia. When derailed, the refugees trod on by foot until they catch another train that heads back down through Austria and Germany before Primo returns at last to Turin.

A tubercular camp survivor (Dionisi), who is guilt-ridden why he survived while his family and friends got wiped out by the Nazis in Venice, feels relieved to toss the starving German slave-prisoners he sees on the road a piece of bread as these members of the ‘Master Race’ grovel at his feet for it.

Primo meets up with ‘The Greek’ again, while he is passing through Russia. ‘The Greek’ somehow is running a bordello.

In Austria, Primo meets an old lady who wrote a letter to Hitler to end the war; but, the SS responded by burning her house to the ground and her husband left her. This gives Primo time to reflect on what the outside world is like, as she offers him and his friend Cesare (Massimo) some drinks and food. Cesare keeps reminding Primo don’t be so glum, it is laughter that is the cure-all for this misery we have undergone.

In a very sensitive scene Primo meets a guilt-ridden woman camp survivor, who did God knows what to survive in the camp. Primo has a brief affair with her and becomes human again.

Perhaps, the most moving scene in the film or the phoniest (which is my take), take your choice, is Primo’s return to Germany where he makes eye contact with a Nazi soldier in the Munich train station; but, the haughty soldier does not know why he is being stared at. Then Primo opens up his concentration camp jacket and the soldier sees the Jewish yellow star and without a word being said on either side, he bows down as if asking forgiveness. But for the ungodly, non-religious, and non-Communist Primo, who was arrested as a Partisan freedom fighter and not because he was a Jew (he concedes that before the war he wasn’t even aware of being Jewish). He states that it’s not forgiveness that he wishes to grant but that the Holocaust be something that is viewed as so horrible an event that it won’t ever be forgotten by mankind. For Primo Levi, “God cannot exist if Auschwitz exists.”

As for the meaning of the film’s title, Primo explains: “Life is a truce between the moment we’re born and the moment we die.” This holds true with Primo Levi’s belief that war is continuous. The spiritual awakening for Levi is what came about on his circuitous route home, where he found a reason to live again.

The Truce ends on a near-note of normalcy–Primo is back at home by his desk, as if this nightmare never happened. But in his last look we realize that he can’t ever return to the way things were before, the price of survival has too high of a price tag on it for him to believe in normalcy again.

I just couldn’t help feeling that this earnest attempt at capturing the mood of that horrific event, lacked whatever it takes to make a first-rate film. The story was there from Primo Levi’s autobiography and the right actor played him, but most of the other decisions Rosi made failed to work.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”