Toni (1935)

25 07 2008

No question, the best Renoir film I’ve seen thus far. It’s probably no coincidence that it is also his most emotionally mature and nuanced work as well. In his defense, La bete humaine and Boudu sauvé des eaux didn’t really attempt to be deep character studies. Still, it is quite impressive to see such a delicate and well-crafted observational film handled with Renoir’s usual technical greatness. In a way, this almost resembles one of Fassbinder’s earlier films, but obviously not as cynical nor quite as accomplished. Towards the end, it becomes downright melodramatic, but even those final moments seem to come off in a rather natural and unforced manner.

An Italian immigrant nicknamed Toni (short for Antonio) moves to the French country side and quickly becomes absorbed in the lifestyle. He seems to have settled down with his landlady and wife, Marie. But as time passes, he quickly grows tired of her and shifts his focus towards an immigrant from Spain, Josefa. However, Josefa is trapped in an unpleasant marriage with Albert, by far the most (physically) brutal character in the story. Toni dreams of escaping with Josefa to a new life but it seems that too many things have to go right, an ironic thought as things begin to go totally wrong for Toni. He is kicked out of his house and forced to make his own makeshift shelter, but his enthusiasm for Josefa never declines.

This is commonly accepted as the forerunner to the neo-realism movement in Italy, which makes considering the origin of the main character and Luchino Visconti’s own involvement in the production. Renoir’s film is free of any political context, though, as he doesn’t seem to be offering any timely or cultural criticism. As a result, his film is also far less dramatic even if it does have dramatic turns located throughout the narrative. Most of these events come off quite naturally under Renoir’s helm, though, as he makes no effort to single out any plot points. The whole experience is a rather breazy experience, which isn’t to say it is fun-loving but just very tender and nuanced.

Things begin to take a turn for the melodramatic towards the end, but not enough to cancel out the much more gentle vibe that comes before it. Even then, there’s enough accomplished in the aesthetic field to warrant plenty of praise. Indeed, the way in which an extended cast of characters exist in their own society anticipates a film like Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher. Perhaps an Ozu connection can also be made, especially since the film maintains the similar proto-gluesniffing genre vibe of Ozu’s silent films. More than that though, I’m glad to see such a warm but complex character-driven drama from Renoir. I already knew he was great in the technical aspects of filmmaking, but it is great to see such talent complimenting a story equal in maturity.



One response

25 07 2008
Michael Kerpan

Too bad Toni is the only film of this sort that Renoir ever made.

Remarkably like the work of the 1930s Shochiku neo-realists.

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