Back on the island where he’s wanted by local gangsters who just killed an old friend and former accomplice, a young Corsican reminisces about the events that set him on the shady path of criminal behavior and political radicalism in Thierry de Peretti’s “A Violent Life,” a complex, intense and physical tale of crime and punishment. While the regional history element and the cast of unknown actors may temper foreign distributors, the film’s contemporary depiction of a lost generation tempted by radicalization should attract interest from festival programmers.
Loosely based on real events, de Peretti’s second feature takes place primarily in Bastia, on the northern tip of the Mediterranean island of Corsica, where the director was born. The film actually starts in Paris in 2001, where Stéphane (Jean Michelangeli) seems to enjoy a festive student life. But a phone call suddenly brings back dark memories from his past: His childhood friend and former partner in crime Christophe (Henri-Noël Tabary) has just been murdered by a rival gang. Stéphane is devastated but not entirely surprised by the news, since a similar death threat had forced him to flee the island years earlier. Now, ignoring the risk and his mother’s objections, Stéphane returns to Corsica, where the film unfolds as a long flashback in which he remembers how he went from an educated petty bourgeois into an underground activist and delinquent.
As in his riveting debut “Apaches,” which also debuted at Cannes (in the higher-profile Director’s Fortnight section), de Peretti prefers to work with unknown actors (cast on-site by Julie Allione) who give his film a singular and fascinating energy. With his curly hair, small round glasses and apparently nonchalant attitude, lead actor Michelangeli embodies an intriguing kind of intellectual criminal.
At first, Stéphane comes across as a passionate but serious young man, fond of deep political discussions and aware of the danger of frequenting a “certain kind of people,” until one of his friends asks him to carry a bag full of guns and hide it in his dorm room. Stéphane accepts the mission and ends up sentenced to a short time in prison, where he is recruited by François (Dominique Colombani), the charismatic leader of a “resistance group” supposedly fighting for the island’s interest. Once out of jail, he convinces his old friends to join in, explaining that their banditry and racketeering could serve a greater cause.
Viewers with no previous knowledge of the intricate relationship between Corsica and metropolitan France may feel a bit perplexed by Stéphane’s reasons for embracing political activism in the first place, although de Peretti means for his reading of Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth,” an essay on the dehumanizing effects of colonization, to provide some insight.
Narratively complex, “A Violent Life” gradually draws viewers into an inexorable and menacing tragedy. Less interested in dramatizing crime than in exposing the hidden stakes of power, history and memory that underpin Corsica’s tourist-friendly image, de Peretti doesn’t skirt the issue of violence — several cold blood murders happen on screen — while DP Claire Mathon’s lensing keeps pace with the action without overdoing the handheld dynamic, giving the film a compelling physical vitality that happens to be one of de Peretti’s key strengths.