Every day, people the world over are asked to do the right thing—the courageous thing—and die for other members of their country. We call these people soldiers, but Bogdan Dreyer’s A Farewell to Fools plays with this idea in a way that highlights a certain barbarism at work here. Asking an innocent person to sacrifice his life so that others (oftentimes others who would not make the same sacrifice) can live is absolutely insane when taken out of the concept of the armed services (or not) and Dreyer’s directorial debut employs a lot of humor and a tinge of darkness (though maybe not quite enough) to tell the story of a little boy and an older “fool” who turn a small town in Nazi-occupied Romania upside down just before the end of World War II.
Ipu (Gérard Depardieu) and Alex (Bogdan Iancu) open the film with an innocent game of war. Ipu is a not-quite-all-the-way-there older fella who has befriended Alex, a little boy being raised by family members, a ways off from his own parents. The unlikely pair (Depardieu the gentle giant to Iancu’s tiny frame) reenact famous battle scenes together, and the sweetness of their bond (shown against beautiful shots of the countryside) is set up perfectly to contrast the sinister storyline that follows. When a young German soldier has a friendly interaction with Alex, only to get his throat slit by an unknown assailant shortly thereafter, the town officials begin looking to Alex for answers. And once the Germans announce that all of the town’s most prominent members (including a priest, played by Harvey Keitel) will be publicly executed if the guilty party does not confess, the worst in human nature starts to play out among the townspeople.
This is where A Farewell to Fools starts to take off as a comedy, so hilarious and bizarre it feels more like a French film (a good thing). The town’s elite (all sentenced to die within a day) get together and come up with this ridiculously awful plan to get the town fool to take the blame for the murder so that they can live. And as they explain to Ipu the benefits of being a hero, one can’t help but draw a parallel to those commercials for the U.S. Army. Father Johanis (Keitel) is the ringleader and although his accent often betrays him, one is inclined to forgive Keitel as he delivers a great performance, his character convincing Ipu that his death as the town hero will be worth far more than a wasted life as a fool. Ipu accepts with a host of demands, including that he actually bear witness to the grand funeral they’ve promised him. The scene where he forces them to act out his funeral is a memorable one, as it taps into that strange desire we all seem to have to attend our own funeral. All the while, Alex pleas for the life of his only friend, but a child’s voice tends to fall on deaf and fearful adult ears.
A Farewell to Fools, in the end, isn’t quite as French as we’d like it to be. That is to say, it seems to head down a darker path but ultimately delivers an all-too familiar/American Hollywood happy ending. And aside from Depardieu, none of the performances are especially memorable. (Although Keitel is humorous, a part of that humor comes from the fact that he is in no way convincing as a 1940s Romanian priest.) Dreyer’s work is still an enjoyable story that ultimately triumphs as sweet little comedy that doesn’t make any attempts to shake up the world of historical cinema.
Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter.
Director: Bogdan Dreyer
Writer: Anusavan Salamanian
Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Harvey Keitel, Bogdan Iancu, Laura Morante
Release Date: Mar. 7, 2014