Centering on the case of a convicted nazi war criminal, this commercially
risky directorial effort by Norman Jewison (Moonstruck) from a screenplay by
oscar winner Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) asks us to sympathize with the
man's humanity while condemning him for his past. But it hopes for too
The words inhumanity and nazi are virtually synonymous and in an initial
sequence we see French official Pierre Brossard give the order to execute
seven Jews lined up against a wall. It's June, 1944. It's a familiar scene,
a re-creation from newsreels. Brossard is a member of the Vichy government,
the France that sided with the nazis and supported them in every way.
But our story is not about that time. We pick it up in 1992, after Brossard
received a full pardon for his crimes from the succeeding president of
France. A secret vigilante group not in sympathy with this despicable act,
is sending out assassins to correct that injustice. They've now located a 48
years older Brossard, living as unnoticeable a life as he can with the
support of former Vichy colleagues and right-wing members of the Catholic
The first of several attempts on Brossard goes bad when hit man David
Manenbaum (Matt Craven) proves his ineptness against the wily and seasoned
Brossard, who beats him to the trigger. Brossard learns the identity of the
would-be killer by emptying his pockets. He then finds a printed note in the
form of a formal statement (providing the movie title) meant to be placed on
his own dead body. It declares that this act of justice (killing him) was
done in the name of the Jews who died by his act. Brossard, ever fearful,
now knows he's an active target and goes on the run, imploring his contacts
for more money and protection.
But killers are not the only ones on Brossard's trail. Following a renewal
of a charge against him for crimes against humanity, Paris judge Annemarie
Livi (Tilda Swinton), a lady with a Catholic mother and a Jewish father is
trying to track him down with the help of law enforcement officer Colonel
Roux (Jeremy Northam), which adds to the thriller aspect of the story as it
intercuts between the factions chasing the elusive fugitive and getting us
deeper and deeper into the labyrinths of protection surrounding such escapees
from the guilt of 77,000 Jews who died in Vichy France.
Livi's intention goes beyond Brossard, however, as she is resolved to expose
those French in influential positions of wealth and political standing who
are protecting all the Vichy vermin who remain. In following her path of
investigation, she gets into the company of some insidious deceivers
backing the man on the run, and the support structure for him from within the
precincts of mother church.
All of which is based on a true story. Brian Moore's novel of 1997 recounts
the case of Paul Touvier, a Vichy functionary who eluded capture after a
sentence of death with the aid and comfort of the church and official
sympathizers until 1989.
Jewison's depiction of a fugitive who repeatedly gets the upper hand against
what should be presumed to be trained killers is a strain on credulity and
does less than well in persuading us of the situation's reality. Caine,
while obviously seriously absorbed in showing us this monstrosity of a man,
ultimately can't go against the grain of his character's unmasked evil and
desperate means of avoiding penalty. His portraint of sniveling
assertiveness, abject pleading, praying, bullying and fear, however shaded,
doesn't absorb us much in his plight. We want the bugger to die.
A judge turned investigator and detective sidekick seems a contrived pairing
to elevate the tensions and pace of the story. Though there's nothing
illegitimate in that, if the judge had been written as a more credible and
dimensional figure the dramatic stakes would be elevated. Certainly the
estimable Swinton could manage that side of the emotional equasion, as she did
expertly in "The Deep End"
in 2001. This very interesting actress swings in a wide creative arc, going
from such mainstream fare as this to worlds of experimental strangeness as
"Orlando" and, more recently, a sci-fi mess called, "Teknolust."
The idea of centering on a despicable character, a dramatic risk at best,
diminishes the effect of a very worthy film's intention of exposing a piece
of history that needs to feel the light of day, as well as our outrage and
condemnation of a network of priests who subverted the guilt of crimes
against humanity and, therefore, share it. But, the absence of a character
to compel a rooting for vindication impairs the impact. Were there an
emotional lynchpin somewhere in sight, it might have made its points with the
gripping effect it aspires to.
~~ Jules Brenner