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Good Kid Grows Up

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400 Blows' Helped Usher in Dawn of Modern Cinema

At the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, upstart writer-director-producer François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” lived up to its title. Festival-goers were certainly blown away by its astonishing realism in portraying the trials and tribulations of a 12-year-old boy, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Truffaut made his first feature—which won the Best Director and OCIC awards—when he was 27, turning to filmmaking after an influential career as a film critic for the famed movie journal Cahiers du Cinéma.

“The 400 Blows” is regarded as one of the films that marked a change from the classics to a new age of cinema. Its critical and commercial success brought global attention to the emerging French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague), comprised of Truffaut and his Cahiers du Cinéma colleagues such as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer.

The New Wave was influenced by Italian Neorealism, but not entirely so. For example, “The 400 Blows” is not entirely bleak. There are charming moments of happiness, such as when young Doinel sneaks away to the movie theater in the afternoon. In this way (and others), the youth serves as an alter ego for Truffaut. Indeed, the film is rather autobiographical, which is at least in part a basis for its personal verisimilitude. Truffaut’s camerawork isn’t flashy—nor is it static. The camera steadily sticks to an adolescent’s viewpoint as it follows Doinel throughout Paris. Little details add up to a full assessment of Doinel’s environment and state of mind.

Antoine Doinel lives in a cramped apartment with his mother and stepfather, who misunderstand him. He’s frustrated by his parents and teacher, who views his creativity as simply rebellion. A series of little mistakes and bad luck spirals into what seems to be a rough-and-tumble life. He’s seen as a delinquent, which becomes to some degree a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the end of the movie, Doinel’s parents send him off to juvenile detention. For what amounts to petty pranks, he’s locked up with real criminals. Yet the audience is always aware that Doinel is basically a good kid.

As actor Jean-Pierre Léaud matured, he continued to play Doinel in a series of films by Truffaut. The short “Antoine and Collette” (1962) was followed by the features “Stolen Kisses” (1968), “Bed and Board” (1970), and “Love on the Run” (1979). Thus, audiences had the pleasure of following 20 years in the life of Antoine Doinel, a beloved character in cinematic history.

The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) (French; 99 min.; scope) AFI Silver Theatre Opens Sat., Dec. 8

5 out of 5 stars

Trafficking ‘Holly’

On the subject of international sex trafficking, “Holly” provides an alternate perspective to the higher profile “Trade.” Writer-director Guy Moshe’s debut film, which was vividly shot on location in Cambodia, is more realistic and less sensational, but perhaps not as entertaining as “Trade.” “Holly” the first of three films sponsored by the K11 project—created by writer-producer Guy Jacobson when he was propositioned in Phnom Penh—to raise awareness of child sex trafficking.

In the film, American expat Patrick (Ron Livingston) has made a living playing cards and hustling in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Lately, Freddie (Chris Penn), an organized crime head from Bangkok, has tasked Patrick to smuggle illicitly obtained artifacts. Along the way, Patrick’s motorbike breaks down in the infamous K11 red light district.

His life changes when he comes across Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl especially valued for her virginity, whose family has sold her to sex traffickers. Determined, she tries to escape her plight but ends up being brought back to the brothel. In a plot line similar to “Trade,” Patrick attempts to save Holly, following the trail as the traffickers move her across the country.

Newcomer Nguyen fulfills her demanding role with gusto, supported by solid performances from her more experienced colleagues. Livingston effectively portrays the complex emotions of his evolving character. Penn (in one of his final roles before dying) is appropriately frightening as a crime boss. With his usual intensity, Udo Kier plays a German lawyer who’s a completely unrepentant client of the brothels, and the always excellent Virginie Ledoyen has a small role as a human rights activist who provides factual background about the international sex trade.

Holly (English, Khmer and Vietnamese with subtitles; 114 min.) AMC Loews Dupont Circle

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sugar’s Not-So-Sweet Price

Director Bill Haney’s powerful documentary “The Price of Sugar” exposes labor injustices committed in the Dominican Republic, which is the primary source of sugar for the United States and where many of country’s plantations are owned by the mysterious Vicini family. Haney’s arguments comparing the plight of Haitian migrant workers to slavery are compelling, if perhaps one-sided, as the Vicinis refused to be interviewed for the film. Against a backdrop of beautifully photographed footage, Paul Newman narrates the revealing exposé with a steady voice.

In the Dominican Republic, sugar cane is harvested by Haitians who are brought into the country and corralled into factory towns known as bateyes. Stripped of immigration papers, they’re not allowed to leave the fenced-in bateyes, which are patrolled by armed guards.

The Haitian workers toil 12 hours to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. They receive little pay, which is provided in the form of vouchers exchangeable for expensive food in the company store. That’s only enough to provide one meal a day, which must be supplemented by chewing sugar cane. Packed into cramped quarters evoking a concentration camp, they live in unsanitary conditions, infecting half of the workers with tuberculosis.

Spanish priest Christopher Hartley, a protégé of Mother Theresa, arrived in 1997 to work in the town of San José de los Llanos. Shocked by what he saw, he brought in medical care and pressed for reforms, despite death threats. Eventually, the Haitians were allowed to leave the plantations to go to town. But their presence angered Dominican residents, fueled by anti-Haitian propaganda from the Vicinis. Hartley, who has since been reassigned, now fears that these reforms might be rescinded without ongoing pressure, leaving the future of these Haitian laborers in question.

The Price of Sugar (English and Spanish with subtitles; 90 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4 out of 5 stars

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Repertory Notes

Please see International Film Clips for detailed listings available at press time.

Washington Jewish Film Festival Nov. 29 to Dec. 9 For show times and locations, visit www.wjff.org.

The 18th annual Washington Jewish Film Festival (WJFF) continues to expand this year. More than 40 features, documentaries and shorts from 11 countries span six venues throughout the Washington metropolitan area. And as always, WJFF has been known for bringing in special guests to discuss the films. Here are a few of this year’s highlights, including special guest appearances:

• “Arranged,” with co-director Diane Crespo and Yuta Silverman, inspiration for the film • “Aviva, My Love,” with director Shemi Zarhin • “Greensboro: Closer To The Truth,” with Marty Nathan, widow of Dr. Michael Nathan, and director Adam Zucker • “Jerusalem Is Proud To Present,” with Sa’ar Netanel, member of the Jerusalem City Council • “Jewish Luck,” with One Ring Zero, an art-lit rock group that created the live score • “Justice Louis D. Brandeis: The People’s Attorney,” with Frank B. Gilbert, grandson of Louis Brandeis, and two experts from the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. • “The Last Jews of Libya,” with director Vivienne Roumani-Denn • “Praying With Lior,” with Lio Liebling and his family, as well as director Ilana Trachtman • “Shorter Films, Bigger Lives”; “My Nose”, with director Gayle Kirschenbaum • “A Slim Peace,” with director Yael Luttwak • “Someone To Run With,” with screenwriter Noah Stollman • “To Die In Jerusalem,” with director Hilla Medalia • “Too Early To Be Quiet, Too Late to Sing,” with Israeli singer Chava Alberstein • “Unsettled,” with co-producer Tony Felzen and director Adam Hootnick

National Gallery of Art Bucharest Stories: New Films from Romania (through Dec. 30) In the last decade, a new wave of Romanian directors has made a lasting mark on the international festival circuit. According to the National Gallery of Art: “Defining features include a matter-of-fact realism, accomplished casting and composition, and a generous bit of Balkan surrealism.” (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film.shtm

National Museum of Women in the Arts WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution The National Museum of Women in the Arts proudly presents the “first comprehensive exhibition to explore the formation, development, and impact of feminism in post-war contemporary art, 1965 to 1980.” Accompanying films include: from Belgium, Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” (Dec. 4), and from West Germany, Yvonne Rainer’s “Lives of Performers” (Dec. 13). (202) 783-7370, www.nmwa.org/calendar/index.asp?Activity=Fil

AFI Silver Theatre and Freer Gallery of Art A Man Vanishes: The Legacy of Shohei Imamura This joint retrospective of master filmmaker Shohei Imamura continues at AFI Silver (through Dec. 27) and the Freer through Dec. 16), which says, “His flair for depicting the human condition in both audacious and entertaining ways is legendary.” (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp

Goethe-Institut The Red Elvis: Dean Reed in Film (Dec. 3 to Jan. 8) American-born singer Dean Reed (1938-86) may be unknown in the United States, but he’s quite famous in Argentina (where he decided to stay after a South American tour), as well as Peru and Chile. His embrace of Marxism contributed to his deportation from Argentina, leading him to East Germany. In the Eastern Bloc, he was compared to Elvis Presley and regarded as the singer of “the Other America.” (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/washington

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999