Primo Levi's Journey

2006, Movie, NR, 91 mins


Italian filmmaker Davide Ferrario's (AFTER MIDNIGHT) unexpected documentary doesn't have much to do with Primo Levi, the Italian chemist who was arrested by the Nazis for being both a Resistance fighter and a Jew and spent a year in Auschwitz before Russian forces liberated the camp. Instead, Ferrario simply uses the tortuous path back to Italy that Levi followed in the months following his rescue. Using The Truce, Levi's memoir of the journey (it appeared in the U.S. as The Reawakening), as an itinerary of sorts, Ferrario sets out to learn just how much — and how little — things have changed over the ensuing six decades.

Too ill to be evacuated, Levi was left behind with the rest of Auschwitz's sick and dying when the Nazis suddenly abandoned it in January 1945. Levi was eventually rescued by Russian soldiers 10 days later, and over the next four weeks regained enough of his strength to leave his sickbed, only to be whisked aboard a Russian transit convoy, destination — and destiny — unknown. And so began Levi's journey, a strange eight-month trip east out of Poland, into the Ukraine, down into Romania, across Hungary and the southern tip of Czechoslovakia, across Austria-Germany, and finally into Italy. Ferrario begins his own travels at Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 2005, at the ceremony celebrating the 60th anniversary of the liberation, a sizable media event that saw world leaders like Jacques Chirac lighting candles of remembrance. Next he follows Levi's route to Krakow's Nowa Huta district, which, years after Levi's stay, became the site of one of the world's first centrally planned Soviet cities. Ferrario interviews Polish director Andrej Wajda, who describes modern Nowa Huta as a "living corpse where nothing happens," and suggests the rusting Lenin Steelworks be turned into a "museum of Communism." At L'Viv, Ferrario captures a climate of growing Ukrainian nationalism by interviewing the wife of slain Ukrainian singer Igor Bilozir, who was beaten to death in 2000 by a Russian musician who objected to the kind of music Bilozir played. In Belarus, however, little seems to have changed since the dissolution of the USSR. In Starye Dorogi, where Levi stayed from July 1945 to September 1945, collective farms known as kolkhoz are still in full swing, and Ferrario's crew is "helped" every step of the way by the "District Councilor for Ideology." In empty Prypiat a metal-lab worker describes life in the aftermath of the disaster at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant. In Moldavia, Ferrario finds rich farmlands and a dwindling population that regrets the passing of the kolkhoz; now there's no money or machinery, and residents are emigrating. Ferrario and crew soon join them, hopping an Italy-bound bus that will take them through Romania, where women toil for an Italian-owned leather manufacturer, and across Hungary, where outsized figures from the Soviet past have been relegated to Budapest's cemetery of communist statues. Finally, Ferrario briefly passes through Munich before arriving in Turin, Levi's hometown.

It's hard to see what light the traumatized Levi, buffeted by fate and the Russians who rushed into the void left by the retreating Nazis, can shed on the fate of the USSR and Europe; it’s only when Ferrario attends a meeting of the Neo-Fascist NPD in Munich that one experiences the frisson Ferrario may have been hoping for throughout. Ferrario opens the film with footage of the Ground Zero construction site and states that, like Levi between Auschwitz and before the Cold War, we, too, have been living through an interregnum, suggesting that with 9/11, that truce came to a sudden end. By looking at the "questions left unanswered by the past," we might be able to predict our own future. Perhaps, but Ferrario again draws a connection that feels somewhat arbitrary. Still, his travelogue is exquisitely shot and the dark poetry of Levi's words, read at intervals throughout the film, is brought to haunting life by a suitably weary-sounding Chris Cooper. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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