'Toni' has a secure place in film history as a forerunner to Italian neo-realism: the director of the first neo-realist film, Luchino Visconti, worked as an assistant on this. It is true, there is a matchless vividness in this film; unlike most so-called realists, and like, say, Altman, Renoir knew that realism wasn't simply a case of photographing the real. So, as well as the bracing location photography, the blazing sun, the breeze rustling the groves, the huge rock quarry, the impassive river, the dusty roads, 'Toni' is full of sounds, of footsteps, bicycles, industrial machines, but mostly of people, talking, singing, fighting, working, playing, eating. Even today, seven decades on and all our advances in technology, 'Toni' has the rare ability to convince you of an organic, teeming world. But, even before the term was invented, Renoir exposes the limitations of neo-realism. Even ignoring the truism that pointing the camera at something is a subjective choice rather than an objective representation, you can't just point a camera at nature or people and expect audiences to remain interested, except the most dedicated Warholian. So you need a story. Renoir may not accept the sentimentality that would become de Sica's stock-in-trade, but he does offer the hoariest of narratives - the love triangle, and murder. This is not to say that Renoir doesn't infuse these contrivances with an unheard-of humanity; that the beginning of Toni's affair with Josepha on a grove-bordered by-road isn't one of the most touching scenes in all cinema, Machiavellian flirtation unwittingly sparking tragedy and despair, but at this stage full of fun and play, even if a bee sting, no matter how suggestive, isn't terribly auspicious, suggesting a slow poison breaking down sprightly young bodies; or that the murder scene has an inexorable immediacy that transcends genre. We don't even know that the film is heading in a generic direction until near the end, which makes the murder seem like it arose from realistic inevitability rather than generic necessity. That said, an artificial narrative frame is fixed onto the realism, and all the artistic decisions reinforce this frame, e.g. the need to focus on this particular character or incident, rather than not. There is a second frame imposed, the subtextual one, if you like, the formal patterning which repeats scenes, images, motifs etc., right down to the circularity of the plot, beginning and ending with singing refugees disembarking a train for a new life, the exact same pan that ends on a bridge. This is a realistic bridge - it carries the refugees to the town; it is a narrative bridge, where the film's plot harrowingly climaxes; but it is also a symbolic (i.e. non-naturalistic) bridge, of crossing thresholds, connection, escape etc. This is not to disparage Renoir's realism, or the complex humanity it engenders, the moving naturalism he elicits from his wonderful actors. Rather, it is to praise his critical genius. The framework he places on his realism, the artifice of certain scenes (the wedding, where Toni and Marie are removed from the local context against a stark black background; the theatrical posturing of Albert as he seduces Josepha; the stylised filming of the murder and the climactic stand-off) all create the film's meaning, whether that is the way human codes stifle freedom (after all, these are refugees who have escaped totalitarianism), or whatever. Like Monet's portraits of the same phenomena at different periods of the day, Renoir shoots the same characters and locales at discretely different periods of time, revealing change and loss in a changeless environment. 'Toni' is a very great masterpiece.
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In the 1920s, the Provence is a magnet for immigrants seeking work in the quarries or in agriculture. Many mingle with locals and settle down permanently - like Toni, an Italian who has ...
September 26, 2020