Julie Gavras‘s first feature “Blame It on Fidel” is based on an Italian novel of the same name, but given that the filmmaker’s father is Costa-Gavras, the famously committed leftist director behind “Z,” a sense of covert autobiographical impulse hovers over the adaptation. Her protagonist, Anna (Nina Kervel, in her film debut), is a precocious nine-year-old living in a typical bourgeois French household complete with nanny, garden, multilevel apartment, and (most importantly for Anna) easily understandable codes of conduct. Her father, Fernando (Stefano Accorsi), may be Spanish and speak slightly accented French, but that small blip aside, the opening of “Fidel” finds Anna enjoying an idyllic childhood.
This, of course, comes to an abrupt end, or else “Blame It on Fidel” wouldn’t be much of a movie. Fernando, overcome with guilt at news of his brother-in-law’s death at the hands of Franco‘s regime (he’d fled Spain long prior, leaving his family behind), exits his lucrative practice to take a position working for the election of Allende in Chile. As he shuttles back and forth between Chile and France, familial revenue shrinks and, with it, their living quarters and amenities. Anna doesn’t take the rapid changes in stride so much as seethe and simmer, her outward stoicism masking a fierce anger that erupts at each new indignity, whether it be removal from her school’s divinity class at her father’s behest, the regular turnover of household help, or the continual stream of loud late-night meetings with a decidedly more bohemian clientele than Anna’s accustomed to.
That her outbursts generally seem earned is testament to Gavras’s willingness to tweak the expectations of how leftist ideals (especially those of the moment the film focuses on) are portrayed. How much this actually resembles the childhood that Julie Gavras experienced is anyone’s guess – “Blame It on Fidel” may well be simply a piece of fiction that captures what was likely a regular experience for that early Seventies generation of students who took to the streets years prior, settled, raised families, and tried to negotiate earlier radicalism with the pragmatism of parenthood.
“Blame It on Fidel” fully aligns itself with Anna’s perspective; the camera often looks upon events from a child’s-eye view (most harrowingly during a peaceful protest gone awry), Kervel’s face occupies the majority of the screen time, and the audience isn’t readily provided access to a great deal of information beyond what the girl herself is capable of discerning. By building her movie so fully, and literally, around Anna, Gavras highlights her film’s finest element (Kervel’s performance), yet also draw attentions to its shortcomings–especially its attachment to stultifying realism when a more whimsical touch might have been more effective.
Gavras has made a movie that’s too complicated to let Anna fully win the day, and the film’s trajectory makes room for moments of rapprochement, mutual understanding, and something akin to growth (like a Judd Apatow film, there’s space for characters to choose poorly, contradict themselves from scene to scene, be unpalatable – all the things that make them more human). But there’s still a tonal issue that leaves “Blame It on Fidel” somewhat adrift. Not light enough to be farce, not exacting enough to be anthropology, Gavras’s film is content to walk a tentative middle line throughout, the same one her characters eye warily, only crossing occasionally, and even then begrudgingly.
Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.