Puenzo (“The Official Story”) has an allegorical ax to grind with the dictators who held brutal sway over his country for so long. On the pretext of isolating the families of plague victims, sinister Public Health officials install martial law and, concentration camp-style, fill vast holding pens in the ominously lensed local stadium.
Pic is anchored in the overriding reality of deadly spreading bubonic plague and the surreal, suspended animation of normal human affairs brought on by loss of contact with the outside world. Episodic structure, foreboding music and era-confounding production design all conspire to create the disturbing impression that the audience is quarantined along with the entire population of Oran. Unsettling and claustrophobic atmosphere is as it should be but will not correspond to many people’s idea of a fun night out at the movies.
Dr. Rieux’s (William Hurt) very deliberate, literary voiceover brackets the film, but body of pic is told in flashback. Opening sequence deftly tricks one into assuming what will happen to French TV cameraman-turned-medical-volunteer Jean Tarrou (Jean-Marc Barr). The range of moral choices possible in the face of potentially mortal adversity is treated with rigor, but this principled pic rarely soars as much as it might.
Hurt, as the devoted man of medicine who stands up to the plague and those who seek to profit by it, is weary, self-effacing and tightly wound. When he finally lets his rage and despair emerge, his emotions fly out like a spray of bullets.
Tarrou’s spiritual drifting and subsequent resolve prompt an occasionally rocky, not always convincing, performance from Barr.
Turning the book’s Raymond Rambert into female TV reporter Martine Rambert (Sandrine Bonnarie) was a smart move. Having a professionally active woman on hand heightens the conflict and provides a welcome contrast to the otherwise masculine proceedings. Bonnaire pulls off some very tricky scenes, including one where she starts to masturbate in public. Her broad, strong face is never less than riveting.
Raul Julia injects playful nuances into the deceptively charming profiteer Cottard, but despite the thesp’s skill, the script demands that he be too heavy a heavy at pic’s tense denouement.
As a retired statistician determined to write a perfect novel, Robert Duvall is stupendous. He delivers every line with pure and gripping radiance, breathing life into the corridors of Death Row.
Although the narrative sticks close to the always interesting characters, some viewers will find the pic’s handling of issues too dogmatic. While not an “easy” or conventionally entertaining film, “The Plague” is accessible to any attentive viewer. Patience also helps. Pic runs long and could possibly be trimmed if distribs insist, but cutting too much could be risky since the pic’s impact is very much a cumulative affair.
One of the film’s inherent accomplishments is also a shortcoming. Since unpleasant death is omnipresent from the very start, viewers hesitate to identify with or become too attached to any character. The pic produces a typical human response to disease, distancing viewers even as it sucks them in through the fourth wall.
People on the brink of death can get away with a certain amount of lofty philosophizing, but there is a danger that English-speaking audiences will find much of the dialogue overly ponderous and arty. Ironically, certain ideas may come across best to those reading subtitles.
“The Plague” seems unlikely to enthrall a large slice of mainstream U.S. audiences. It will probably fare better with viewers in Old World and Third World countries, where historical “outbreaks” of repression and attendant fear lie closer to the surface.