Review: Abbé Pierre - A Century of Devotion
- CANNES 2023: Frédéric Tellier pays tribute to the man who was nicknamed "the voice of the voiceless" with a biopic tracing the powerful career of a determined fighter against poverty
"I've spent my life fighting hunger, cold, misery and loneliness. I've done everything I could to help others. Was that enough? Did I manage to change things a little?” Abbé Pierre, whose real name was Henry Grouès, was born in 1912 and died in 2007. He was a priest, a Resistance fighter, a member of parliament after the war, the founder of Emmaüs, became a national celebrity during the terrible winter of 1954 and was France's favourite personality at the end of his life. Frédéric Tellier researched this rich source of biopic material with Abbé Pierre - A Century of Devotion, presented out of competition at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.
There are, of course, a number of invisible pitfalls when tackling such a subject and trying to create a work accessible to the largest possible audience, not least the management of an immense time arc with its crucial choice of shortcuts and the risk of tipping over into hagiography, but the French director (appreciated for SK1 [+see also:
film profile] and Through the Fire [+see also:
film profile]) comes through with flying colours, well helped by his lead actor Benjamin Lavernhe, who delivers a remarkable performance.
"I wanted to be a saint. I'm not capable of it". Henry Grouès wept when he was expelled in 1939 from the Capuchin convent in Crest, where he had spent seven years, because he was not physically strong enough to endure the daily life there. Then came the war, when he commanded a detachment of French soldiers in the Maurienne region, and at first he was afraid (especially of having to kill), doubtful and weak. He went on to fight in the Resistance, helping Jews to cross the border illegally, in guerrilla warfare against the Germans, coming face to face with tough decisions (having a traitor shot, giving cyanide to tortured people) and with the darkness of the world. It was there that he changed his identity, becoming Abbé Pierre and meeting Lucie Coutaz (an excellent Emmanuelle Bercot), who was to be his right-hand woman for the next 50 years, and with whom he founded the first Emmaüs community in Neuilly-Plaisance after the war, "a home for those who have nothing left to hope for".
Fighting relentlessly to finance and popularise his crusade against poverty, Abbé Pierre gradually became a media star, but his intransigence and total commitment also entailed their share of risks and mistakes, especially as his board of directors did not necessarily have the same vision as he did ("you have to spend everything, buy land, build shelters", "it will never be a bank or a shopping centre") of how to use the financial windfall from the donations pouring into Emmaüs...
Written by the director with Olivier Gorce, the script skilfully spans 70 years, interspersing the fictional sequences with television archives and newspaper cuttings, and using some of Abbé Pierre's writings as voice-overs. The abundance of speeches by the main character (who was a formidable orator) is even split-screened at times. But the film remains very concrete and manages to paint a relatively nuanced portrait, touching on Abbé Pierre's darker side, his addiction to the media (and amphetamines at one point), narcissistic temptations, women's views, his ideological stances ("against poverty, I prefer non-violence, but I prefer violence to cowardice") and his political stances (in favour of decolonisation, against dictatorships). Abbé Pierre - A Century of Devotion offers the general public an instructive, wide-ranging summary that inevitably overshadows the supporting roles and works (like the abbé) on the incessant repetition of the same message that still resonates today: "reject this world where the greatest number suffer, mobilise against injustice", work in favour of "the insurrection of freedom, of justice, otherwise it will be the insurrection of anger".
(Translated from French)
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