Gianni Amelio uses such an excessively subdued approach in his filmization of Albert Camus’ final, unfinished novel, “The First Man,” that the whole is less than the sum of its select, often beautiful passages. Though Camus’ fictionalized self-portrait is largely set in the 1920s Algiers of his childhood, Amelio wisely chooses to balance this era with 1957 Algeria, when the author returns to a country verging on revolution. As always, the director’s work is consummately controlled, but here much humbler than his best films, like “L’America,” and destined for only marginal returns in Euro markets.
Camus’ manuscript, still a work in progress at the time of his death in an auto accident, largely stressed the early, poverty-stricken years of his fictional alter ego, Jacques Cormery (Jacques Gamblin). But Amelio’s script works events into a flashback-flashforward structure that allows space to consider the politics of late-’50s Algeria, and the protag’s uncertain position within them. Paralleling this is Cormery’s attempt to understand his father, who died in WWI just a year after he was born.
The search constitutes the film’s opening images, staged, as throughout the film, with fluidity and grace by Amelio and cinematographer, Yves Cape, who pushes HD color to painterly levels. Jacques in 1957 looks for his father’s grave in a French battlefield cemetery, and realizes that he’s older than his progenitor, killed at age 25. The thought registers with Jacques, but there’s little more reflection on it, representing a pattern throughout the film of notions raised and not fully explored.
Upon his subsequent return to his native Algeria, having lived and made his literary reputation in France, Jacques encounters the coming political storm. He’s resented by the pieds-noirs — the French locals who are rising up against the increasingly militant Arab majority, so long under the thumb of French colonialist occupiers. In a brilliantly staged scene, he advocates co-existence and respect, and denounces violence, to an emotional university lecture hall audience. He’s assaulted with boos and insults.
This, as well as a brief but effectively helmed terrorist bombing sequence and a subplot involving Jacques’ attempts to free the imprisoned and condemned militant son (Hachemi Abdelmalek) of a former Arab classmate (Abdelkarim Benhabboucha in 1957; Djamel Said in 1924), are new material not in Camus’ published manuscript. They help to explain the sources of Jacques’ general and tolerant views of Arab Algerians, and are in some ways among the film’s better moments, as far as they go.
Jacques’ primary reason for coming to Algeria is to visit his mother, Catherine (a fine Catherine Sola), which brings him some peace of mind, even as it triggers memories of his difficult childhood. Such scenes include Jacques’ harshly dominant grandmother, his home’s absolute matriarch (brilliantly played by Ulla Baugue), who sets the household rules, which even Catherine follows.
Jacques’ supportive teacher Mr. Bernard (Denis Podalydes), who recognizes the boy’s intellectual gifts, is an almost polar opposite to the fearsome grandmother. He finally enables Jacques to attend high school on a scholarship, freeing him from a life working in the factory where his kind but illiterate uncle (Nicolas Giraud) labors.
These lengthier, earlier-set passages in “The First Man” are generally the most conventional, and tend to pull Amelio into a more standard filmmaking mode. The novel’s inherent incompleteness prevents the pic from being a rounded narrative, and the overall tone is too gentle and aestheticized to fully dramatize Algeria in crisis. Gamblin’s contained performance keeps the film’s temperature at a cool level, though the actor’s resemblance to Camus is a plus. Besides the magnificent Baugue and Sola, Podalydes provides a sensitive performance as Jacques’ mentor (despite iffy aging makeup).
Time shifts are subtly handled by Amelio and editor Carlo Simeoni, while Franco Piersanti’s music alternates between moody Arab motifs and conventional cues designed to trigger emotions.