Reviewed by John Hospers
Testament begins, much like Ordinary People, with some happy incidents in the life of a "typical" California family-husband (William Devane), wife (Jane Alexander), and three children. Suddenly, without warning, comes news that the entire East Coast has been wiped out by nuclear blasts, and then San Francisco and Los Angeles. The small town in central California in which the scene is set remains, for the moment, relatively unscathed.
At first nothing much happens; school and work go on as before, except that there is no transportation and food must be rationed. But over a year's stretch of time the effects of fallout gradually accumulate: Many die of radiation sickness, including two of the family's three children. Soon there are no more physicians available, nor any electricity or fuel. No attempts to make contact with the outside world are successful. Increasingly people fall ill and die.
Jane Alexander, in a remarkably sensitive performance, tries to hold her dwindling family together amidst incidents such as friends stealing from each other. But in the end there is nothing, and we know that all will soon give up their struggle for life.
Everything is underplayed, as it was in a similar doomsday film, On the Beach. We are often left to infer what tragic events have occurred rather than being shown them. But the story is more remarkable for what it is about than for the way it is handled-not that the latter is inept or insensitive, only that it is not remarkable.
We are not told from what nation the blasts came, or whether there was retaliation-none of this seems to matter. (Apparently there were no follow-up blasts.) Nor are any solutions suggested. The film, though it will be used by "freeze" advocates (both unilateral and bilateral) to bolster their position, is just as compatible with a policy of deterrence to prevent such catastrophes as the film depicts. We are simply shown (with how much accuracy it is difficult to determine) what the aftereffects of a nuclear blast are, and then left to draw our own conclusions. It is doubtful that any conclusion already arrived at will be altered by seeing this film.
A modest film likely to be lost in the scuffle is Tomorrow, based on William Faulkner's short story. Not since the remarkable but unremarked film of the 1950s Intruder in the Dust has a Faulkner story been so sensitively brought to the screen. Robert Duvall, in the title role as the
Mississippi dirt-farmer whose exterior is so impassive that he never seems to have any emotions at all, is remarkable in an authentic and beautifully controlled performance. To see the repressed emotions inside him well up as he takes in a strange girl, assists at the birth of her child, and raises the child as his own when the girl dies, is a revelation to the viewer.
Tomorrow is filmed, as it should be, in black and white, but the black seems (whether deliberately or not) to be washed out and faded. Moreover, the film is primarily a mood piece, and there is so little action-or rather it is so slow in developing-that most audiences, not attuned to the sensitive portrayal of character, will tend to lose patience with it. But the fault is theirs, not the film's.
L'Etoile du Nord
L'Etoile du Nord is a little gem of a picture. It is framed around a murder mystery-but it is actually not much of a mystery, nor is there much suspense. The charm of the picture lies in the subtle interactions of the various characters: the middle-aged woman (Simone Signoret), moral, respectable, devoted to her husband, yet drawn strangely to the man who comes to her boarding house; the man (Philippe Noiret), who affects in different ways the lives of everyone there; the woman's two daughters, one a street trollop and the other, under-age, secretly sleeping with the house boarders; and finally the motley crew of boarders. Each of them is nicely individualized. Simone Signoret and Philippe Noiret give beautifully restrained performances in the main roles.
There is very little high drama and few dramatic confrontation scenes. Everything is understated, but the fine shades of characterization come out more effectively than in most American films. It is all done with minimal cues, which in most American pictures are either absent or so grossly overdone as to be too obvious. Though not pretentious, this is a study in human nature that rings true, and the combination of character and situation make it thoroughly enjoyable to see.
John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California and is the editor of the Monist.