Sensitive, sobering, and tinged with respectful melancholy, “Primo Levi’s Journey” retraces the enforced peregrinations of the great Italian chemist following his release from Auschwitz, documenting not just Levi’s trek but the changes wrought in the various locales since the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Helmer Davide Ferrario, no stranger to travel docus, uses Levi’s subjectivity as a guiding force for his own objective eye, resulting in a gently moving vision of people and lands struggling to reconcile the past with an uncertain present. Docu should have no problem finding a base on arthouse screens.
In 1963, Levi published “The Truce,” a description of his physical and psychological journey from liberation at Auschwitz in 1945 until his homecoming in Turin, Italy, eight months later. Part of a large group of camp inmates shuttled across Eastern and Middle Europe by the Soviet army, Levi recorded the metamorphosis from prisoner to free man during a period he called “the truce,” that in-between era bookended by the conclusion of WWII and the start of the Cold War. (In 1997 helmer Francesco Rosi shot the book as a feature starring John Turturro.)
Ferrario and co-writer Marco Belpoliti begin with shots of Ground Zero, driving home the concept that another truce — one that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall — came to an abrupt halt on Sept. 11.
From the brief Manhattan prologue they follow Levi’s footsteps — from Auschwitz through Poland, the Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and on back to Western Europe — revealing the unhappy legacy of the failed communist enterprise and the subsequent wasted opportunities.
Throughout these nations, the residue of Soviet promises act as a dead weight to development. Levi’s description of the “interminable indolence” imposed on the displaced refugees, shuttled back and forth without knowing when they would get home, has its parallels with the people encountered in the docu, many likewise uncertain where they’re headed.
Levi’s descriptions of natural beauty also find their equivalents here, but he couldn’t have predicted the ghost zone of Chernobyl, or the poverty in Moldova that’s forcing thousands to emigrate. In Hungary, where Levi finally felt he was back in Europe, Ferrario finds the perfect example of globalization in Chinese manning the market stalls of Budapest, and in Germany a neo-Nazi rally puts a chilling spin on the rise of disenfranchisement and anger in the 21st century.
Periodically accompanied by the haunting eyes of Levi himself in yellowed footage, docu has its lighter moments (especially in Belarus), and Ferrario’s sense of humor, and tongue-biting understatement, offers glimmers of needed levity amidst a generally downbeat picture.
Amusing Soviet propaganda newsreels emphasize the failure of yesterday’s promises, and music of varying genres are layered in with wry wit.