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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Father’s Footsteps’ a fantastic French film

Published: November 18, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

When I agreed to attend a Jewish film series screening hosted by the Brandeis University Conservative Organization (BUCO) in conjunction with the National Center for Jewish Film, I was skeptical. I steeled myself for an overtly Jewish movie that would leave me feeling either woefully depressed or irritated by how the Jews were being depicted.

The French 2007 film “Father’s Footsteps,” “Comme ton pere” in French, did neither. It was a fantastic movie. Despite its strong Jewish roots, the movie’s plot could have, for the most part, played out in many countries and with many cultures. This movie played out in Paris in the year 1973 with a Tunisian-Israeli family of Jews.

“Father’s Footsteps,” directed by Marco Carmel, follows 11-year-old Michel (Jules-Angelo Bigarnet) as he navigates his life, confronting both the everyday trials all 11 year olds face and the problems created by his father’s imprisonment.

Michel’s father, Felix (Gad Elmaleh), is imprisoned for armed bank robbery after he joins a motley Parisian mafia composed of Israelis, Tunisians and Arabs. In Paris, they are all outsiders. Felix is Israeli, having fought in the Six-Day War, and his partner, Serge (Richard Berry), is a Tunisian who fought for the other side in the war. Serge is from the same Tunisian town, Gabes, as Michel’s mother and Felix’s wife, Mireille (Yaël Abecassis).

This tension sets the stage for the drama that makes this film suitable for a BUCO film screening. At the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in Israel, the Israeli and Arab children in Paris begin a street-fight. Although Michel does not partake in this, his older brother Eric (Corentin Daumas) does. The complex relationship between Parisian Jews and Arabs plays out in the relationship of Eric and Michel with their friend Farid. Although they are friends, they have fundamental differences of belief and fight often.

One particularly compelling moment is when Farid and Eric are slugging each other, fighting about who should have control of Israel, when Eric finds out about the brawl a few blocks away. Jumping up and taking off down the street, Eric calls back to Farid asking him to walk Michel home. Farid at first asks why he should but then acquiesces and walks his young friend home. Such complex relationships make this movie a delight.

The most complex relationship in this film is that between Michel and Felix. Whereas most father-son movies follow the trajectory of a shaky relationship strengthening as the movie progresses, this movie does the opposite. In the beginning of the film, the two are incredibly close, sharing secrets and generally being a united front. As the movie continues, however, and Michel finds out how unsavory his father is, their relationship sours.

This change is signified quite compellingly when Michel promises to show his father his secret hiding place. Michel climbs a tall fence and drops down to the mattresses below with the expectation that his father will follow. Just as Felix begins to climb the wall, however, the police arrest him and Michel is left alone on the other side, not realizing what has happened to his father. All he knows is that his father did not follow through on a promise and has abandoned him.

Every actor in this movie was phenomenal. The two best were Elmaleh and Abecassis, as Felix and Mireille Maimon respectively. Elmaleh is quite charming despite being a rapscallion. You know you are not supposed to like him as he makes deals with Serge—deals you know will result in the near-destruction of his family and the complete destruction of other families through murder—but you like him nevertheless. Every time he smiles at one of his sons or tells his wife that he adores her, you smile and adore him.

Abecassis is an incredibly strong actress and steals every scene in which she appears. This movie is about the changes a person goes through during difficult times and her character goes through more than most. Still, every change is believable and captivating. When Felix is arrested, Mireille is furious with her husband as she concerns herself with protecting and supporting her sons. As time continues, however, she returns to her husband and allows her love for him to control all of her decisions.

Also, one of her strongest moments is when she returns home and sees her sons playing with Serge and the new toys he has brought them. She screams at her sons, packs up all the toys and kicks Serge out of their apartment, warning him to stay away from her and her sons. She sees Serge as the ultimate causal force in the destruction of her family because, as angry as she is at Felix, she still loves him and is looking for a scapegoat. Yet, just a few scenes later, Mireille is forced to go to Serge for money to buy food for her sons. Swallowing her pride and anger, she begs Serge for the support he once offered her.

Berry as Serge also delivers a solid performance. Although he was not as good as Abecassis or Elmaleh, he imbued Serge with a likeable and sympathetic demeanor despite the character’s clear lack of humanity. This is certainly a credit to the writers, who could have easily made Serge the “monster” of the film, the out-and-out bad guy. Instead, he has small moments of redemption. He apologizes to Mireille after insulting her; he supports Felix’s family while Felix is in prison.

This is certainly a must-see film. The script and acting are impeccable and the movie grabs you from the moment it begins and keeps you hooked until the screen goes black an hour and a half later. Although many people are turned off by subtitles (the movie is in French and Hebrew), it is still definitely worth it. Each character changes during the course of the film and these changes resonate with the audience.

I always find it comforting to find a good movie that neither shows the Jews as victims nor makes me say, “Why us? Just leave us alone!” When I saw 2005’s “Munich,” I was thrilled to see a movie that had Jews in it who weren’t just being slaughtered or being the bad guys. “Father’s Footsteps” aroused even more admiration in me because, although the Jews were the bad guys, it was just any other mafia movie and the main motives behind their actions did not relate to them being Jewish but to them being people.