Friday April 24, 1998

     Suddenly the war is really over. And as the news percolates through the mess hall at the Red Army's camp for displaced persons, a Russian soldier prances onstage with a saber, Auschwitz survivors dance "Cheek to Cheek," and romance--even among people with death lingering in their nostrils--somehow seems a possibility.
     It's a scene that's directly about hope and humanity, indirectly about the absurd cruelty of an insane regime, subversively about the takeover of the world by Hollywood, and, as filmed by Italian director Francesco Rosi in his polyglot epic "The Truce," it seems in sympathy with the nature of author Primo Levi himself.
     Although the celebrated writer put a weird punctuation on his life's work by throwing himself down a flight of stairs in 1987, he should nevertheless be remembered as an author of humor as well as pain. And a writer who knew that pain could never be quite so acute as when one was laughing through it.
     This is a lesson "The Truce" sometimes forgets. Based upon the Levi novel--written nearly two decades after his liberation from Auschwitz and telling of his postwar journey home to Italy--it is a film that's at its best when the characters in it are going about the business of living. And not when it tries to possess the gravity of the Holocaust itself.
     An example of this is the opening scene, in which several Russian soldiers approach the gates of Auschwitz and see . . . well, what they see. But what a mere movie will reproduce can hardly equal the horror of 1945; all the viewer can think is how well-fed the prisoners look, which doesn't seem quite the point.
     On the other hand, Rosi--whose films include the neo-realist masterpiece "Salvatore Giuliano"--handles the dark comedy well. When Levi takes up with, or is taken up by, a rakish character called the Greek (Rade Serbedzija), his life and the film get an injection of adrenaline. The Greek treats Levi like a servant, but re-educates him to life in the world and exposes the naturally timid chemist to the joys of braggadocio.
     It's Levi's awakening that's at the core of the film, and it takes place throughout, as he and his motley, multiethnic companions make their grueling way through Europe, viewing sabotaged rail line after dynamited road. In John Turturro--as the former chemist, former partisan and writer-to-be Levi--the film has an invaluable asset. His Levi is earnest and haunted, fragile and intelligent. And as the movie proceeds along Levi's road home we get to watch Turturro inhabit a figure who gradually considers himself lucky his soul is still intact. And what we know that he doesn't--about the end of his life--makes the whole thing profoundly sad.
     On the other hand, the movie should have gone one way or the other with its myriad languages--subtitle the whole thing, get Turturro to speak Italian, something to clear up the stiltedness that infects much of the picture. As it is, "The Truce" comes only so close to being a testament to a great writer and a great story.


The Truce, 1998. R, for some language and sexual content. Miramax Films presents a film by Francesco Rosi, based on Primo Levi's memoir. Produced by Leo Pescarolo and Guido De Laurentis for Capitol Films in association with Channel Four Films and for 3 Emme Cinematografica with RAI Television, Italy. Adapted by Francesco Rosi and Tonino Guerra. Screenplay by Francesco Rosi, Stefano Rulli, Sandro Petraglia. Director of photography Pasqualino De Santis and Marco Pontecorvo. Production design Andrea Crisanti. Costume design Alberto Verso. Editor Ruggero Mastroianni and Bruno Sarandrea. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. John Turturro as Primo. Massino Ghini as Cesare. Rade Serbedzija as The Greek. Stefano Dionisi as Daniele. Teco Celio as Col. Rovi. Roberto Citran as Unverdorben. Claudio Bisio as Ferrari.