Gloriously entertaining, fast-paced and absorbing, “Justinien Trouve, ou le batard de Dieu” is a spirited French-lingo cross between “The Name of the Rose” and “Young Indiana Jones.” Lengthy but riveting pic has everything one could wish for in an adventure yarn — including humor — except high-profile stars.
Properly marketed, first pic directed by famed Gallic producer Christian Fechner (“Les Amants du Pont-Neuf,””Camille Claudel”) should perform nicely wherever auds clamor for a strapping good legend, but on French turf the handsomely staged medieval saga will face an uphill battle in the crushing fall lineup of mostly U.S. mega-releases.
July 26, 1683, in the French countryside is a dark and stormy night as only the movies can offer. As hyperbolic thunder and lightning pierce the heavens (Germinal Tenas’ sometimes mocking, sometimes inspirational score is perfection from the first note), a lone rider deposits a newborn babe on the steps of a monastery. The masked horseman bites off the infant’s nose, leaves a coin purse in its bunting and vanishes.
Dubbed Justinien Trouve (meaning “found”), baby no-nose is given to a compassionate wet nurse and her loving spouse, an ex-pirate who teaches his adopted son to fence and joust, read, write and count. A free spirit, raised in love, who sports the right mix of humility and wit — along with a wooden nose — Justinien is ordered by the local baron to report to a seminary that would make a penal colony look cushy, but soon rebels and makes an ingenious action-packed escape.
Incorporating the plot twists and turns of an old-fashioned serial without skimping on character development, pic traces the runaway lad’s path as it intersects with lepers, skeletons, dungeons, slimy noblemen, conniving gypsies, an unrepentant serial killer, an enterprising sorceress and several excursions to death’s door.
Once seated, auds aren’t likely to care about the absence of major stars — casting is excellent. Pierre-Olivier Mornas as Justinien is a winning hero. When it comes to improvising with the material at hand, Justinien could give MacGyvera run for his medieval money. Not since Pinocchio has a kid with a wooden nose been so appealing.
Most gore is implied, but what is shown is never gratuitous. Pic abounds with darkly amusing folklore such as the distinction between a torturer and an executioner. (The former is a poor but respected member of the community, the latter a well-paid pariah.)
All production elements conspire to spirit the viewer to another place and time. Dialogue, peppered with terms from the Middle Ages, is forthright and chipper. From rousing debut to gratifying conclusion, Jacques Bufnoir’s (“Indochine”) wide-ranging production design is aces. Claude Agostini’s painterly lensing shows off hundreds of extras in Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s apt costumes. Although one or two early passages are mildly confusing, pic is edited with flair — particularly in the cross-cut nail-biting finale during which God’s Bastard’s true parents are revealed.