This is a lucid, penetrating detailing of a young doctor’s attempt to civilize a retarded boy found living in the woods in Southern France in the 18th century. Though based on a true case [Jean Itard’s Memoire et Rapport sur Victor de L’Aveyron, published in 1806], it eschews didactics and creates a poetic, touching and dignified relationship between the doctor and his savage charge.
Director Francois Truffaut himself plays the young doctor at a deaf-and-dumb school in Paris who takes in the 11 or 12-year-old savage into his personal care to try to turn him into a presentable human being.
The boy is first seen frightening a woman out picking berries and then being captured by a group of peasants. He is naked, caked with dirt and ferocious. Locked up by the police, he is then transferred to the school in Paris. Head there feels the boy may be an idiot but consents to experiment. Main body of the film is the teaching and attempts to break through to the boy’s inherent (the doctor believes) humanity.
It progresses slowly but absorbingly. Truffaut underplays but exudes an interior tenderness and dedication. The boy is amazingly and intuitively well played by a tousled gypsy tyke named Jean-Pierre Cargol. Everybody connected with this unusual, off-beat film made in black-and-white rates kudos.