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Vol. 16, No. 5, 2017
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etienne comar's

reviewed by



The Montreal International Jazz Festival has a reputation for covering all the bases when it comes to the celebration of jazz in all its formats. And that has always included film, mostly documentaries but also dramas. Among the two featured documentaries were Chasing Trane by John Scheinfield, an examination of Coltrane and his times and the evolution of his music; and Bill Frisell: A Portrait by Emma Frantz, an up close look at one of jazz’s most adored and prolific composers. Each of the films were preceded by a 12 minute short succinctly entitled Oscar, a film that brilliantly combines animation and archival footage of the legend that was Montreal's Oscar Peterson.

The jazz festival’s main film event was the city’s premier of the critically acclaimed Django, directed by Etienne Comar and reviewed below by Oslavi Linares.

An apt opening act for the 2017 Montreal International Jazz Festival, Django is as much a biopic of guitar legend Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) as it is about music in times of conflict. The plot can be summed in the dichotomy of the persecuted gypsies playing music for their Nazi oppressors and surviving thanks to their talent. This reality leads Django (1910-53) to try to escape to Switzerland aided by a duplicitous former lover (Cécile De France), while relying on his talent to safeguard his family and his fellow gypsies, or, in the words of his wife (Bea Palya), “make crowds dance and enchant snakes.” And the snakes dance to the tune of swing, blues and jazz.

Indeed, music plays a large part of the film, from the opening scenes of persecution to the closing memorial, it weaves through Django’s and the audience’s worlds, borrowing from the musician’s power to at times speak for him, illuminate the scene, or simply induce clapping.

Django’s technique is so brilliant that the movie barely mentions the fact that at the age of 18, after suffering extensive first and second degree burns over his body and left hand, the doctors not only wanted to amputate one of his legs, but his fourth and fifth string plucking fingers were paralyzed. Django rejected the surgery, left the hospital shortly thereafter, and was able to walk with the aid of a cane after a year. Although the doctors were convinced he would never play guitar again, through sheer will and talent, he learned to play with his thumb and two fingers – and the rest is history.

But the film, thanks to its up-close cinematography, is also an effective portrayal of the artist and the gypsy community. The camera purposely closes in on its subject, marking in a series of vivid portraits Django’s change in attitude from a care-free self-centred spirit to a concerned member of the Roma community, and an aid to the Resistance, while never loosing his sense of humour. To better render the stages of Django’s journey and the many confrontational scenes, eye level shots are preferred over the more conventional aerial perspective, while the highs and lows of the artist’s life are effectively evoked through creative lighting. The atmospheric shots of the different cities and locales (from gypsy camps to concert halls) breathe life to a period that does not seem so distant in today’s world of rising xenophobia and ethnic violence.

Director Etienne Comar is no newcomer to ethnic conflict, having co-written with Xavier Beauvois the tale of two religions in Of Gods and Men (2010), winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes. For the occasion of his directorial debut, Django, the very first biopic of the legendary guitarist, was chosen to open the 67th Berlin International Film Festival.

The film and its spot-on script effectively and seamlessly blend fact with fiction, altering the outcomes of his (second) escape attempt, mixing the concert at Amphion-les-Bains with the French Resistance, or completely creating new characters, as in the case of his fictional lover, Louise de Klerk.

Nevertheless, Comar’s film joins the ranks of World War II films like La Vita è Bella (1997, Benigni) and Train of Life (1988, Mihaileanu), while touching on the lesser known facts of the Roma genocide where it is estimated that a half a million gypsies were slaughtered by the Nazis. But in contrast to these films, or even The Pianist (Polanski, 2002), Django is not just a story about survival but about the artist’s power and responsibility. The film reminds us of what stands behind music and what it can endure.  




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