At Brattle through Saturday
Norhert Carbonnaux, re-writer and director of the 20th century version of Candide, captures Voltaire's spirit to such a degree that the philosophical tale is as powerful as it was in 1759.
Played by Jean-Pierre Cassel, Candide is a gentle Frenchman whose arms and legs sort of flap when he runs. Innocent but curious, he bumps into all the calamities of the modern world, from concentration camps to plane crashes. Some of the disasters Voltaire wrote about have remained unchanged: three army divisions get syphilis from raping a certain household servant.
It is a tribute a Carbonnaux that from the moment the film begins one feels the retelling was inevitable, Voltaire's Spanish Inquisitor is now a totalitarian dictator, his missionaries in Paraguay have become imperialists in Borneo. Candide's protest, "No, I don't love the king, because I've never seen him" is as futile as it ever was.
Carbonnaux is as brilliantly ironic as Voltaire. But the spirit of the tale has become more morose. The audience simply cannot laugh at concentration camps. Although Carbonnaux' characters, like Voltaire's, retire to a little domestic garden at the end of their perilous journeys, the garden of 1963 is even less a place of simple contentment. Candide and his retinue are annoyed and bored. Instead of ending on the faintly optimistic note of "mais il faut cultiver notre jardin," Carbonnaux ends by havng Candide dream craxily of the unreal, naive happiness of his youth.
This difference reflects a larger discrepancy between the two versions. To show his state of congenital wretchedness, Voltaire makes Candide a bastard; Carbonnaux makes him an Alsatian. The countries Voltaire mentions only symbolize universal evils hike treachery and regicide. Carbonnaux specifically attacks Germany, Russia, Farouk, Argintina and imperialists. Voltaire describes imaginary places, like Eldorado; Carbonnaux invents nothing. Voltaire was inspired by the earthquake in Lisbon, a natural disaster; Carbonnaux announces that he was inspired by the bombing of Hiroshima.
The philosopher is concerned with an abstract question: what happens to reason and morality in an evil world?
The filmmaker, on the other hand is preoccupied with the concrete evils in a political and social world. His tyrants have historical and geographical reality, and this a depth of horror that Voltaire's did not. And Carbonnaux' Dr. Pangloss is frightingly recognizable as the "realist" spokesman who rationalizes in turn aristicracy, Nazism, Communism, sultanism, and transquilizers. It is harder for us to resolve this 20th century philosophical tale for the horror behind the comedy is so much more evident.