Edinburgh skies were bursting with noise and light this 5th November, but another kind of blast was taking place at the Filmhouse where this year’s French Film Festival opened.
The Big Hit is based on real life experiences of Swedish actor Jan Jönson, who visited Kumla prison in 1985 and coached inmates to learn Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot because their life inside was made up of waiting. After a year of rehearsals, a première performance was booked in Gothenburg City Theatre, that resulted in a letter from, and meeting with, Beckett himself.
Adapted to present day France by director Emmanuel Courcol, the film opens with down on his luck Lyon actor Étienne Carboni, superbly played by the wonderful Kad Merad, being escorted through the multiple locked gates and doors to reach his new pupils in the theatre workshop he has arranged in the prison.
His own life as a divorced man, negotiating his relationship with his daughter, is going through a rocky phase, giving his new project particular significance. He finds the steel to not only face down the cynical hard men, whose crimes he chooses to remain unknown to him, but to negotiate hard with Prison Governor Ariane, sensitively played by Marina Hands, for the radical move of their being allowed out to perform in Lyon’s Théâtre de la Croix-Rousse.
Kad Merad is known for his comedic talents and while the film itself is very funny in parts, his role is a serious and poignant one, significantly in the closing scenes on the stage of his dreams in the Paris Odéon. His presence may have been a catalyst to the many laugh out loud moments that laced the performances from the six inmates who brilliantly prove their acting competence in portraying the incarcerated theatrical ingenus.
From being unengaged, mocking and at times threatening, they gradually shift to enthusiasm thanks to the tenacity of Étienne. But the reality of prison life arrives at his door in the form of Kamel Ramdane, played with cocky menace by Sofian Khammes, who appears in the place of Nabil Jouhari, whose acceptance of reality in prison life is caught terrifically by Saïd Benchnafa as he submits to ‘boss’ Kamel’s pressure. In the joyous scene where the cast shout their lines to each other from cells during their lockdown, the sight of Nabil quietly mouthing the lines he lost to the cunning Kamel speaks volumes.
Étienne finds he has drilled down to their truths and humanity as they share what really matters with the big, voracious Patrick Le Querrec, who loves to please his loving wife and whose role is embraced with gusto by David Ayala, and bad boy Kamel who is vulnerable in his desperation to see his son and found the theatrical experience ‘a bigger buzz than a hold up’.
The Big Hit is true to original story while making it belong to the outstanding new cast. The film’s English title of The Big Hit rather short changes the French one that taps into the well-used critics’ description of a successful show being ‘a triumph’, but this comedy that’s tinged with sadness throughout well and truly lives up to its original and more apt French title. Un vrai triomphe!