Friday November 26, 1999
"Soleil" is Sophia Loren's best film in years--never mind that it will be playing at the Monica 4-Plex on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. only, for an open run. It's worth catching.
Traditional in style and sentiment, this 1997 production packs an emotional wallop, thanks to Loren's enduring, formidable presence and beautifully understated performance for veteran French actor-director-writer Roger Hanin. As has often been remarked, Loren remains one of the movies' most glamorous figures, but on screen she has always glowed brightest as a woman of the working classes, strong and maternal.
Hanin has created a role perfect for her, that of a middle-aged Franco-Jewish wife and mother living in Algiers and holding her family together during the hard and dicey years of World War II. "Soleil" opens in 1940, when the Vichy government is beginning to impose restrictions on Jews living in French colonies. The leftist husband (Philippe Noiret) of Loren's Titine Levy has already lost his government job and been forced to go to France, where he is working as a postmaster under an assumed name in a remote village, sending home half his meager pay.
As the war progresses, Jewish children are banned from public schools. That's just fine with the youngest of Titine's five children, the adolescent Meyer (Nicolas Olczyk), a handsome boy who is the apple of his mother's eye. Algiers is such a sunny place, and Meyer and his siblings have so many friends that they manage to have fun despite the Vichy's anti-Semitic regulations and the reminders that the world is at war. (Interestingly, the film's Arabs and Jews are shown to live side by side in harmony.)
Titine faces the daily challenge of putting food on the table for her family members, who live in an old second-floor apartment overlooking a narrow street. Much of the film is concerned with the ingenuity, determination and sheer brass of which she's capable to make this happen, providing "Soleil" with a source of humor and pathos.
There's so much telling detail and nuance in the film that it's no wonder that it is semiautobiographical; Hanin was born in Algiers (in 1925) of French colonial parents. Indeed, in the film's present-day framing story, Hanin casts himself as the now-aging Meyer, who dreamed of going to France to become its greatest surgeon; from the look of the palatial residence that provides the film's opening shot, he has succeeded. Yet, stricken with a heart attack and peering out a window, he does not see a manicured garden but instead has a vision of his mother hanging out a washing.
Noiret is on screen only briefly, but he and Loren invest an all-too-fleeting rendezvous with terrific resonance that speaks volumes of the Levys' deep and sustaining love for each other. Of course, as the film progresses and the war wears on, you become increasingly concerned for the welfare of the Levys and their children. Marianne Sagebrecht is also on screen only briefly, but also effectively, as Titine's devoted sister Jeannette, a skilled seamstress prepared to come to her relatives' aid.
Olczyk is a real charmer as Meyer at 12, as is his look-alike older brother Richard, who plays Meyer at age 18. Shot in Morocco by Robert Alazraki and scored stirringly by Vladimir Cosma, "Soleil" captures persuasively the contradictory atmosphere of Algiers at the time, so beautiful, warm and inviting yet intermittently charged with uncertainty, danger and increasing hardship. But its key virtue is in providing Loren a role worthy of her.
Soleil, 1999. Unrated. (Sunshine)