Priest, politician, resistance fighter, and social worker Abbé Pierre remains one of France’s most popular figures, best known for founding Emmaus, a charity movement with the aim of eradicating homelessness. Frédéric Tellier is the latest director to attempt to capture the broad and vivid life of Pierre (here played by Benjamin Lavernhe), cramming almost every one of his life’s pivotal moments into the film — from his exile from the Capuchin order to his parliamentary speeches in the early days of French Reconstruction, all the way to the final moments of his life. Historical breadth seems to be a feature of modern biographical films, and it’s something that can potentially be done well — Terence Davies’ recent Benediction, for example — but sadly, it doesn’t work here. Tellier fumbles this poorly paced, repetitive film by indulging narrative loops that quickly wear you down and result in more of a boring slog than a captivating portrait of Pierre’s political and spiritual struggles.
In the first act of A Century of Devotion, we’re shown Pierre’s life during WWII, first in combat with soldiers, then as a priest. during a section that features some of the clumsiest edited action in a long time, all blurry wide-angle shots and shaky camerawork making everything indistinguishable — and then finally, as an underground resistance fighter. It’s there that he meets his lifelong comrade and organizing partner, Lucie Coutaz (Emmanuelle Bercot), who helps him forge his new identity, shedding his previous name (Henri Groues) to become Abbé Pierre. These moments, which include references to the occupation of France and the Holocaust, seem oddly glazed over. No doubt, the despair and suffering which Pierre witnessed alongside his fights against fascism shaped many of the beliefs that he carried with him, but the film treats them as little more than obligatory trivia.
A vast majority of A Century of Devotion focuses on the 1950s, when Pierre and Lucie began their work tackling the ravaging epidemic of homelessness in postwar France. Eventually, the film snowballs into swiftly paced montage and even delves into Baz Luhrmann-esque split-screen territory, which sees Pierre explore his newfound stardom through a cycle of assembly hall speeches against the French government, seeking support for his program to end homelessness. It’s a strange, almost laughable departure from the rest of the film’s dry and color-drained aesthetics, yet for a moment it’s injected with a much needed dose of vitality; this style of impressionistic collage showcasing Pierre’s monumental rise to fame could have been a technique better utilized for a longer period of time. But Tellier seems so dedicated to depicting Pierre’s life in a strict chronological order that he affords the film little room for experimentation. Although there are strange bookended scenes which show Pierre on some celestial plane, floating in the sky as he ponders if he has worked hard enough, they mostly feel like cobbled together attempts at surrealism rather than anything truly fleshed out.
Throughout Tellier’s film, there are moments that try to capture poetic beauty: Pierre gives us confessional narration that questions the notions of existence or faith while scenes of nature play out on screen. The problem is that these instances amount only to a superficial examination of faith, especially when Pierre’s spirituality provides mostly just background texture; consequently, many images feel like little more than a botched facsimile of Terrence Malick’s aesthetic, and land without any emotional engagement. Considering that this is a film about a man who was staunchly dedicated to fighting poverty and social injustice, this lack has a tendency of tempering that radicalism. There is virtually no mention of Pierre’s denouncement of the Popular Republican Movement (a French Christian democratic party) which led him to joining the Christian socialist movement (the word socialism is seldom even uttered). This juxtaposition — the spiritual vs. the political — feels ripe for exploration, but it simply isn’t unpacked much here. And considering Pierre’s battles against the Vatican, and his involvement with popular movements like liberation theology, it feels like an odd choice to spend so much time watching the man repeat a handful of speeches, with little discernible difference beyond his increasing age. The film does, however, depict the time Pierre met an aging Charlie Chaplin (who donated money to his cause), and it’s arguably its high point.
The scenery in A Century of Devotion consists of sweeping landscape shots of rural France and huge, crowded halls, but the film’s visual design is nonetheless often drab. There’s little attention paid to crafting beautiful compositions, and the camera is constantly moving, never holding onto any moment for longer than strictly necessary. On top of all that, there are a number of bizarre aesthetic choices here, one of which involves footage of real world events being sporadically dropped into the film, such as the Hiroshima bombing, which has almost no obvious relevance to the plot. Tellier amplifies this frustrating inclination at the end of film, when he cuts from the narrative — which has ended — and moves into modern-day footage of housing insecure folks; it’s a scene that is clearly, clumsily, supposed to remind viewers that Pierre’s work isn’t finished. However, the overbearing synth music and surveillance-style camerawork somehow make the whole thing feel far more predatory — more liberal gawking than genuine compassion. It’s an unfortunate final maneuver that leaves a lingering bad taste in one’s mouth, and doesn’t do any favors to a film that, while ultimately inoffensive, is hamstrung by its bloated length and fairly boring approach to biography.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 22.