Movie review: The Big Hit (Un triomphe) #AFFrenchFilmFestival

(image courtesy IMDb)

Can art liberate you?

It’s a big question but one with a great deal of rich humanity at its heart in the Emmanuel Courcol-directed film Un Triomphe / The Big Hit, which asks if it possible for art to liberate the spirit when the body has no choice but to remain imprisoned?

In this case, the prison is an actual one in which five prisoners and one accidental hanger-on – Patrick (David Ayala), Kamel (Sofian Khammes), Moussa (Wabinlé Nabié), Jordan (Pierre Lottin), Alex (Lamine Cissokho) and Bojko (Alexandre Medvedev) – are serving sentences for a range of offences including armed robbery and murder.

Saints and innocents they are not, but when often out of work actor Étienne Carboni (Kad Merad) is engaged by progressive prison warden Ariane (Marina Hands) to bring some cultural to the prison by staging plays with these selected prisoners, these men find themselves reborn in a way that surprises them and makes a real change in the life of the teacher.

At this point, you may be thinking “Light, fluffy inconsequential inspirational story laced with endearing comedy” and to some extent you would be right.

But The Big Hit is far too sophisticated a film to become wholly or even partially captive to the expected tropes, serving a nuanced film that is less heartwarmingly uplifting, though it is that, and more a nuanced study of what happens to people in incarceration when the chance to escape their bonds, even for the length of a play, becomes available to them.

The film begins much as you might expect it to, with Étienne arriving at the prison for the first time, his only experience prior to this point being in working with juvenile offenders and uncertain about what lies ahead.

(image via YouTube courtesy Unifrance)

Initial signs aren’t too promising.

While some of the men are charmingly eager, others seem disinclined to give the theatre classes the serious and earnest enthusiasm with which Étienne is approaching them.

But impressed by the fact that their teacher appears to be resolutely serious about teaching them to act and to even stage a play, something none of them ever conceived of doing, they begin to slowly yield and discover that there may be more to life, even on the inside, than waiting for the current day to end and the next one to begin.

Tapping into the existential limbo-laden hell that is prison life, Étienne selects Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett as the play they will perform, an ironic choice that nevertheless speaks to them but not for the reasons you might expect.

Certainly they understand the theme of the play almost instantly – how could they not?

Their lives are spent waiting, waiting, waiting and so they identify immediately with the central ideas in the play; getting them to act it out is more of a challenge however but Étienne perseveres and as The Big Hit tells its unhurried and thoughtful story, which rather pleasingly doesn’t peak quite where you think it might, you begin to see a change in men who aren’t as hard as they seem and who simply want what any of us want – for life to actually mean something.

While we don’t come to know a huge amount about the prisoners, though their personalities and predilections are writ winningly large with Patrick happily eager to perform for his wife, Jordan realising this may be his chance to doing worthwhile for the first time ever and Kamel wanting nothing more than for someone special to see him in action, we find out enough to elevate these men from fodder from a semi-inspirational narrative to real people who find that perhaps all the liberating power of art might be too much when, at the end of the day, they have to return to their cells.

Getting to know these men, and indeed their teacher who is well-meaning and lovable but prone to anger and self-serving motivations – he is happily flawed thus removing him from the kind of pedestal on which a Hollywood telling of the story might have placed him – is one of the richest, most satisfying aspects of a film which delights in defying expectations right to its very interesting end.

(image via YouTube courtesy Unifrance)

The central theme of The Big Hit is not so much how art can change you for the better, though that is very much explored in ways that are delightful and empowering, but rather darkly and illuminatingly how this taste of freedom and change can doom you when your only option is to return to imprisonment once your brief taste of elevated living has run its brief course.

That is not necessarily a depressing element to the story with The Big Hit putting both the inspiration and its effects, good and bad, side-by-side in the film in such a way that you see the two sides of a complex and very human whole and can appreciate why the men react the way they do later in the film.

Beautifully filmed and near flawlessly paced, the film is testament to the fact that while inspirational tales are lovely and warming for the soul, they lose their power and true effect when neutered of the flawed humanity that gave them form in the first place.

Being moved and inspired is a good and great thing but without the humanity behind it to remind why it matters so damn much, and for these men it really matters, you run the risk of being left with nothing more than cutesy greeting card slogans sprung to bluebird of happiness life.

The Big Hit never comes close to being that sweetly trite, and while it does remind you of the power of art, of the importance of believing in and trusting others to be more than they appear and the power of real change to alter a person’s life, it also acknowledges that human beings are innately complex and thus anything that involves them is always going to be far more than the sum of its parts, no matter how fetching and life-affirming they may be.

With that knowledge and insight securely in hand, along with a finely-written screenplay and superb performances throughout, The Big Hit is far more than it might first appear – while it does affirm the power of art to liberate and empower, to provide purpose and fulfilment in ways that will make you smile, it places them in a very human and honest context, with a profoundly clever sting in the final act tale, that enriches the film immeasurably and makes you realise how important it is to consider people as fully-realised human being and not simply pieces in a feel good puzzle.

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