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DFI Film Review: The First Man (2011)

Jan 15, 2012

Written by Reem Saleh, New Media, DFI

Film: Le Premier Homme (The First Man)
Director: Gianni Amelio
Stars: Jacques Gamblin, Catherine Sola, Maya Sansa and Denis Podalydès
Year: 2011
Running Time: 100 mins

Based on an autobiographical book by Albert Camus , “Le Premier Homme” film follows Jean Cormery (Jacques Gamblin) the alter ego of the famed philosopher and journalist, on his return to Algeria in the late 1950s. He is back to visit his mother (Catherine Sola) to whom he is attached, reconnect with his past and trace stories of his father.

The film is relayed in the past and present. We visit the writer’s tender childhood through flashbacks, while the present carries the struggles of a man torn between the warmth of the Algerian sun, the weight of the colonialism stamp as pied-noir and the bitter relations between both continents.

The mother and son conversations are some of the powerful scenes in “Le Premier Homme”. She is overwhelmingly proud of what her son has become; he worries about her living alone in her advancing years. It is a unique bond, often charming in its silences. One can’t be indifferent to the magnificent performances by both Gamblin and Sola.

Then comes the Algerian land that Cormery insists on visiting, triggering his vivid reminiscence of childhood. We are shown how this young boy with innocent features showed, at a very early age, a remarkable gift for perception while excelling in his academic performances. This combination will define him as an adult as he tries to fight the effects of colonialism and pays a price for taking a stand on the dilemma.

“Le Premier Homme” is adapted from the book with the same name, which was discovered after the tragic death of Camus in a car accident. The unfinished manuscript was published intact with Camus’ notes and mistakes years later. The incomplete autobiography combines the passions inherited from his Algerian birthplace with the probing intellect of a revolutionary existentialistic and genuine thinker. Camus’s words are translated into images allowing us to follow the development of his on-screen persona. The omnipresence of the sun and sea captures the hospitality of the Algerian landscape as he’s always described it.

Winner of the Prize of the International Critics for Special Presentation at the Toronto Film Festival 2011, “Le Premier Homme” manages to stay loyal to Camus’ spirit. As co-producer Bruno Pésery explained at the Dubai International Film Festival last year, the film-makers filled the narrative gaps of the incomplete book using archival pictures and letters of the author, with the collaboration of Camus’s daughter.

When I first learnt about this film at DIFF, I approached the screening with feelings of fear and excitement. The writings of Camus shaped my early thoughts. Fortunately, the film keeps the integrity of his beautiful descriptions intact: the cinematography, focusing on sunny panoramas and warm-colored flashbacks, offers an authentic view of Algeria.

This is no surprise as Italian director Gianni Amelio, winner of Canne’s Grand Jury Award for his 1992 feature “The Stolen Children” has combined his interest in philosophy with a sympathy for Camus’ upbringing; both were raised by their mothers and grandmothers and deeply affected by the absence of paternal figures. The results make for a meticulously crafted and emotional film. Fans of Camus will find “Le Premier Homme” both cathartic and heart-warming.

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