REVIEW: Francofonia

24 04 2016

FrancofoniaAs the names usually saved for the closing credits roll at the outset of Alexander Sokurov’s “Francofonia,” the director’s voice makes a rather unusual comment: “I don’t think it was successful” – referring to the film itself. The remark is not so much an invitation of judgment as it serves a demand to bring a critical eye to the work. Despite the director’s reservations (though is it really in spite of them?), the film holds up quite well under scrutiny.

Sokurov is perhaps most renowned for 2002’s “Russian Ark,” a kaleidoscopic tribute to St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum captured in a single 100-minute shot. While that level of choreography and discipline are undeniably impressive, the aesthetic rigor served like a straightjacket for the film. “Francofonia” finds joyous expression of its themes in a more freeform approach. Sokurov dabbles in documentary, video essay, re-enactment and potentially even some fictionalized elements to tell a story about how the Louvre survived the scourge of Nazi atrocity in World War II.

Unlike many a period piece, Sokurov keeps this episode of history relevant in more ways than one. He relates the Louvre to the very dialectic at the core of France’s being, that of egocentric vs. idealistic thinking. These two French mindsets find personification in two specters haunting the halls, a young gamine chanting the national motto and none other than Napoleon himself, who brings up the often ignored truth about museums’ collections standing as a testament to imperialist pillaging.

Francofonia

Sokurov finds a personal connection, too, by pointing out what happened to his native Russia during the film’s events. A Franco-Germanic coexistence under Hitler’s rule was something considered deeply by the Führer, who even went so far as to give his troops instructions on civility when entering the great French cultural institutions. Hitler felt no fondness for Russia and ordered the destruction of their culture when the Nazi troops stormed through. When one culture survives, which one also perishes? Sokurov quickly gives a crash course in erasure, making it painfully real for anyone who only knew it as a theoretical construct.

And, finally, “Francofonia” explores the Louvre as the very definition of culture itself. He interrogates where it came from and, if it is so great, why this art could not stop the calamitous conflicts occurring on the continent around it. Sokurov is not just dropping these to sound smart and then walk away. He is genuinely interested in their answers and provides a feature-length attempt to work them through. No answers might be possible, but “Francofonia” sure is. And that works just fine until we evolve to the point of comprehending the answers Sokurov seeks. B+3stars

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