Thursday, March 02, 2017

“Django”– Movie Review



This week, I attended the opening night of The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s French Film Series, screening the new biopic “Django”. 


When the survival of a jazz player is threatened by the Nazis, can he escape their control in order to resume both his life and career?


In 1943 Paris, guitarist Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) is growing in popularity; with American jazz musicians fleeing Europe as the Nazis swarm France, Reinhardt gains recognition for his style of “hot jazz”.  Even the Nazis seem to like it — but only up to a point; they are so concerned with controlling the French citizens, they have begun to censor not only what Reinhardt plays but also how it is played.  Too much swing or the blues will lead to a decadent society, they maintain.  Further complicating matters is the fact that Reinhardt himself is of Romani descent — what some refer to as a Gypsy — an ethnic group which the Nazis are determined to eradicate. 

Seeing that her friend (and occasional lover) may be in potential danger, Louise (Cécile de France) seizes an opportunity to intercede.  An aristocratic fan of Reinhardt’s who possesses some rather convenient connections to the Nazis, Louise advises him to take his family and his band of musicians and journey to Switzerland as soon as possible.  With palpable tension coming from the German military, Reinhardt takes his friend’s advice.  Although he cannot immediately leave France altogether without the Germans’ knowledge, Reinhardt instead takes his crew out of Paris, winding up in a Gypsy settlement in a remote area of the country. 

Eventually, the German army catches on; they not only round up the Gypsies and confine their movement, they also force Reinhardt and his musicians to play for their officers during an elaborate party.  Reluctantly, Reinhardt and his band perform, but he conspires with Louise to sabotage the function by going against Nazi orders and playing any type of music he pleases.  Soon, with partiers drunk and many of them dancing, distractions ensue.  With the officers paying less attention to Reinhardt, can he somehow find a way to slip out of the party and lead his family across the Swiss border?  


“Django” is not what some might refer to as a traditional cradle-to-grave biography; instead, it is a detailed look at a very specific period in the musician’s life.  Where the movie shines is in two aspects:  One is how extraordinary Reinhardt’s music was, despite the fact that he did not have full use of his left hand (as a child, Reinhardt was caught in a fire that rendered both the pinky and ring finger of his left hand useless; this resulted in him being forced to maneuver the fretboard with only his index finger and middle finger, using the thumb to hold the guitar neck in place).  The second is in its historical references; genocide during World War II has typically emphasized the Jewish Holocaust while atrocities performed on other ethnicities by the Nazis can sometimes be lost.      

Unfortunately, where the movie somewhat falters is where it borders on hagiography, even when the guitarist’s actions are less than heroic (e.g., he abandons his elderly mother and pregnant wife in the dead of winter as he heads for the Swiss border), not to mention cheating on his wife with Louise.  Does it humanize him?  Absolutely.  But it also serves to diminish his stature at the same time, raising an extremely valid question:  Should an  audience invest its time and emotions rooting for such a severely flawed, narcissistic and egotistical protagonist?  During such extreme circumstances, perhaps some might find it easier to forgive. 

What can’t be lost on viewers of “Django” is how much the Romani plight during World War II echoes what is going on today with refugees from primarily Muslim countries.  Perhaps where the movie has its greatest value is in how it appears to resonate recent events in United States politics and policies, particularly with respect to the immigration ban.  One cannot help but recall in this case the famed Santayana quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  It begs the question of whether or not America is doomed to repeat the past when confronted with the treatment of refugees trying to escape political oppression or religious persecution.   

Django (2017) on IMDb

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