6 January 2013 | DLewis
Mozzhukhin's Valiant Struggle for his own Soul
Luigi Pirandello had long resisted a film adaptation of his popular 1904 novel "Il Fu Mattia Pascal" because he disliked the compromises that routinely cropped up when his properties moved to the big screen. He was justified; an American poverty-row studio would have taken this book and made it into a neat 70-minute drama and changed the hero from a philosopher/dreamer into someone who had a real job, like an architect. Marcel L'Herbiér's Albatros unit was finally chosen when Pirandello decided to relent, precisely due to L'Herbiér's refusal to compromise; although his films generated great controversy, some were commercial successes and all trod a thin line between art filmmaking and conventional story arcs. Ironically, judging from his earlier productions, "Feu Mathias Pascal" was an example of L'Herbiér playing it relatively safe; there are no wild outbursts of montage nor cameras on a swing, though at least three tiny vestiges of his more experimental approach crop up in this lengthy, three-hour film. However, the style of "Feu Mathias Pascal" is still advanced, and it remains very modern in feel, especially as shown with Timothy Brock's very fine score for the 2009 restoration.
Ivan Mozzhukhin, a major star of the French silent cinema of the 1920s, plays the role of Mathias Pascal. A deep thinker and scion of an aristocratic family that is declining and on the ropes, Pascal loses his estate, yet remains idealistic, marries, and has a baby daughter. His mother and the child die on the same day, and after a period of mourning he flees to Monte Carlo, where he luckily restores much of his personal fortune. Learning that he is considered dead back in his home town, he goes onto forge a new life, but is pestered both by the stress of being in hiding and the ineffectual nature of his not being who he says he is. The story has numerous substrata, and L'Herbier includes them all, with Mozzhukhin's expressive countenance and comic physicality holding it together. Mozzhukin is wonderful in the role, and does a fine job throughout; other standout performances include Michel Simon, in his film debut, as Mozzhukhin's occasional buddy and Pierre Batcheff as a juvenile thief. L'Herbier has a problem turning the corner on plot points: the first sequence demonstrating the conflict between Pascal and his mother-in-law seems to go on for an eternity. Experienced eyes know that this cannot be a major aspect of the tale told, and it isn't, but L'Herbier treats it like it is. There are a lot of long takes on Mozzhukhin, just thinking; we know what he's thinking, but it doesn't build tension. Also, L'Herbier's cutters were kind of cavalier about matching action; one character is seen leaving the scene three times. Despite such shortcomings, "Feu Mathias Pascal" is major landmark in French cinema in several ways; it is a high-water mark in both Mozzhukhin's career and in Pirandello adaptations, and it was the most commercially successful of all L'Herbier's films, which must have pleased him because he clearly designed it as a solid, commercial feature. Alberto Calvacanti and Lazare Meerson designed the sets, and despite the radical difference in approach the two styles shake hands, not to mention the splendid location shooting in Monte Carlo, Rome and San Gimignano. Careful eyes will note what Luis Buñuel took away from "Feu Mathias Pascal," particularly in the Roman sequence, which coincidentally involves Pierre Batcheff's character.