Koch Lorber // 2006 // 95 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Mina Rhodes (Retired) // January 30th, 2008
[Anna and her brother discuss Communists]
Anna: The barbudos start nuclear wars! Like Filomena said, they're red and bearded.
François: You got it all wrong! Santa Claus is red and bearded!
Julie Gavras (daughter of Greek-French filmmaker Costa Gavras) makes her narrative directorial debut with Blame it on Fidel! (La Faute à Fidel!). A sly, charming little film about one stubborn child's slow acceptance of change, and her burgeoning understanding of politics and the world around her, Blame it on Fidel! arrives on DVD with a lovely technical presentation and a surprisingly plentiful collection of extras.
Nine-year-old Anna de la Mesa (excellent newcomer Nina Kervel-Bey) enjoys the perks of growing up in a well-off, bourgeois household. She attends a private Catholic school, always has a bath before dinner, and delights in meticulously instructing others in the proper ways of dissecting one's fruit. Her little brother, François, is mostly an annoyance, but she has a good relationship with her parents, mother Marie (Julie Depardieu, daughter of Gérard Depardieu) and her father, Fernando (Stefano Accorsi). Her comfortably consistent life is severely altered when her parents take in Fernando's sister, Marga (Mar Sodupe), and her young daughter, Pilar (Raphaëlle Molinier). Refugees from fascist Spain, they awaken a desire for social change in Anna's parents, who set off for Chile to aid with the Socialist reforms. When they return, her parents sport an impassioned spirit for political activism, and her father (to Anna's horror) sports a beard. Quickly firing Anna's beloved nanny (who tells her it is all the fault of communists, especially Fidel), Anna's parents relocate the family to a smaller home, remove her from her Bible studies class, and generally inconvenience her. Armed with a permanent expression of pouty indignation, and a series of bratty diva fits, Anna tries to persuade her parents to give up their new life as "beatnik hippies" and re-embrace their previously affluent, conservative lifestyle.
Based on her fantastic debut performance in Blame it on Fidel!, Nina Kervel-Bey has quite a future in cinema, should she choose to continue on that career path. Imbuing Anna with a perfect mixture of intelligence, childish selfishness, and dashes of sweetness, she all but carries the entire film on her little shoulders. Essentially a coming of age tale, the film focuses almost exclusively on Anna, who is, at the film's start, a pampered little girl with no real notions of politics, or the existences of other cultures or ways life outside her own. As her family is rich and insular, she has only vague notions about the way other people live, or the workings of the world. This trait extends to her parents, who are also politically naive. Their eventual participation in revolutionary efforts only begins well into their adulthood, after they get bored with their lives. In effect, they are like teenagers rebelling; Anna's father, Fernando, against his fascist family, and her mother, Marie, against her snobbish, dyed-in-the-wool conservative parents.
Such staunch conservatism infected little Anna at an early age, and this upbringing, combined with the anti-communist rants of her nanny, lead her to reject the chic, newfound activism of her parents. Kervel-Bey's performance is one of the better portrayals to come from a child actor in many years; never cloying, wooden or false, she conveys perfectly the defiance a child employs when faced with changes in his or her routine. Anna, as a character, is likeable, despite her bratty self-centeredness, because she is so realistically childlike. She is not some idealized, simplistic moppet or a blank cipher. The other characters around her are not so defined, but small bits of characterization filter through the narrative; Marie's quick embrace of activism is due to her attraction to the "exotic," while Fernando's is born from the guilt he feels over his fascist heritage. Anna does not understand their motivations, but all the barbudos and pro-choice activists she encounters expose her to differing viewpoints -- fascinated with genesis stories, Anna initially subscribes to the Christian story of creation. However, her first replacement nanny, an Italian refugee, tells her Greek origin myths. When she asks her grandfather about these, he tells her the Greek stories are simply fantasies for the ignorant. The work Kervel-Bey does in this scene is amazingly subtle; one can almost see her thoughts forming as she ponders the question that if the Greek origin myths are fantasies for the ignorant, then what are the Christian ones? Performances are excellent from every member of the cast, though their effectiveness depends on the depth of the character -- Julie Depardieu projects a weary determinism that is appropriately sympathetic; Stefano Accorsi delivers the right amount of patriarchal pompousness and activist enthusiasm; and little Benjamin Feuillet, as François, turns in an endearing debut performance.
Julie Gavras, coming off of work on documentaries, transitions to narrative filmmaking with magnificent ease. Her deceptively lightweight tone masks the sly depth lurking in her script; complicated ideas of philosophy, religion and politics bombard Anna from every turn, but like Anna herself, the film does not linger to ponder them in detail. The tone is further lightened by bits of warm humor scattered throughout, most of it stemming from childhood misunderstandings or ignorance. The light tone gently shifts to heavier material as the film progresses; practicing her parents' notion of group solidarity, Anna raises her hand along with the rest of her class when a question is asked, even though they are all wrong and she knows the right answer. Burnt by the shame of sheep behavior, Anna's path to rejecting her peers and parents' groupthink, and making her own judgments about the world -- while still acknowledging her love for the other people she shares it with -- is what ultimately lends the film its touching emotional undercurrent.
Koch Lorber's presentation of the film on DVD is stellar. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and anamorphically enhanced, Blame it on Fidel! looks superb. There is a slight softness to the picture, but this is most likely inherent in the film itself. There is some slight artifacting in the main titles, due to the all blue background, but it is not distracting, and there is not a trace of any imperfection to be found afterward. A lovely transfer. The audio is presented only in a standard Dolby Digital French stereo track, but the dialogue and Armand Amar's wonderful score sound full and clear. Koch Lorber certainly doesn't skimp on the extras, either; the original theatrical trailer (anamorphically enhanced) is first, followed by a "Making of" featurette, which details how certain scenes were shot, and allows one to view aspects of Gavras's working process. "The Very Very...Beginning" is a look at the casting of Nina Kervel-Bey and Benjamin Feuillet, and their childish antics provide some amusement. Following those is series of deleted scenes, introduced by Gavras. While most of the material (a dull prologue especially) was rightfully cut, there are some excellent scenes between Anna, her mother and grandmother, and Gavras's introductions are insightful and informative. "Piece by Piece" and "Venceremos!" are two short on-set featurettes that round out the set; the former being a look at filming focusing on the two child leads, and the latter focusing on the extras portraying the Chilean activists.
While Blame it on Fidel! is certainly an excellent film, there is a quickness to the pace that is completely unnecessary. Events occasionally unfold too quickly for them to have any real impact, such as the out-of-the-blue introduction of Marie's pregnant sister; it could be argued, however, that this reflects Anna's uncomprehending nature of many of the situations she's plunged into. The DVD itself is a near flawless presentation -- the only thing that would make it feel totally complete would be an audio commentary from Julie Gavras.
Blame it on Fidel! is a fine little film, and Koch Lorber delivers a fine little DVD presentation.
Not guilty; though Nina Kervel-Bey and Julie Gavras are both sentenced to do more film work in the future.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Making of Featurette
* Behind-the-Scenes Segments
* Deleted Scenes (Presented by the Director)
* Original Theatrical Trailer