Atale told by the very man who wasn’t meant to live to tell it, “My Father Saved My Life” tackles one of the most inspiring true life stories in the annals of crime literature, showbiz and belated filial piety. Writer-director Jose Giovanni, now 78, was condemned to death at age 22 and — but for the efforts of his father — would have been executed by guillotine. Efficient, if old-fashioned, storytelling style — crowned by a magnificent central perf by Bruno Cremer as the dad — makes this sober, affecting account a labor of love on every level. Savvy fest programmers should whip up a retrospective of films written and/or directed by Giovanni, cap it with current pic and invite the man himself.
In his 1995 book, “The Secret Gardens in My Father’s Heart,” Giovanni recounted the colorful life of his old man, who ran off to America at age 17, made a fortune as a professional poker player and returned to France in 1917 as an interpreter for Gen. Pershing. However, without his heroic later efforts on behalf of his estranged son, the world would have been deprived of the author of novels that became classics of Gallic cinema. These include “Le trou” (directed by Jacques Becker, 1960), “Classe tous risques” (Claude Sautet, 1960) and “Le deuxieme souffle” (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1966); Giovanni has also written and directed over a dozen films himself, including several of the most popular successes of the ’70s.
At pic’s outset in 1949, Manu (Vincent Lecoeur) — the name given Giovanni’s character — has been sentenced to death for murder and is locked up in Paris’ ancient, fortress-style prison, La Sante, manacled day and night. A former Resistance fighter, he’d fallen into racketeering and extortion after WWII and got caught in a holdup that went terribly wrong.
Manu refuses to rat on his involved uncle because he swore to his now-dead older brother that he would cover for him. He also didn’t improve his chances for leniency by joining an escape attempt through the Paris sewers in 1947. To pass the time on Death Row, Manu starts writing the story of the foiled escape — which is eventually to become his first book, “Le trou.” (Pic uses B&W footage from the film version to illustrate the escape attempt.)
Unbeknownst to Manu, Joe (Cremer), the father he holds in utter contempt has already spent four years camped out at a cafe opposite, mordantly named Mieux Ici Qu’En Face (Better Here Than Across the Street). Joe will spend a further 10 months — the core of the period covered by the film — trying to assemble the elements that could lead to presidential clemency for his only remaining son.
Pastel-toned flashbacks, doled out with precision, fill in the blanks leading to Manu’s incarceration. Real life handed Giovanni a great cast of characters: a smooth-talking charismatic crime boss (Francois Perrot); a mother haunted by lost wealth and obsessed with perfecting a system for roulette (Michele Goddet); a young lawyer (Nicolas Abraham), who feels terrible that he failed his client in court; a fellow inmate (Eric Defosse), whose pulmonary problems are treated even as he waits to have his head sliced off; a humane guard (Rufus); and, of course, Joe, whose last-ditch efforts finally pay off. Giovanni only learned of the crucial debt he owed his father long after his release from prison.
Many potential cliches lurk — from a lucid prostie with a heart of gold to Joe pulling out his own gold tooth for the funds to pay a hot-shot lawyer’s fee — and pic feels as old-fashioned as the era it depicts. That said, helmer’s blistering sincerity creates genuine emotional tension. Giovanni’s own voiceover fills in his feelings at four junctures.
Lecoeur convinces as the young man who goes from despising to adulating his father, who embarks on a second life based on the written word but who never finds the spoken words to express his love, gratitude and admiration.
Cremer anchors the proceedings with the patient, deliberate gestures of a man whose profession relies on a combo of bluff and daring, playing for the highest stakes he’s ever known.
Aside from being a good, if somewhat overlong, thriller in its own right, pic — co-written with Bertrand Tavernier — is touching because by bringing his father back to life for two hours of screen time, Giovanni is able to do what he never managed for real: to tell his dad that he loved him.