“Ipu, to me you are a hero. A real hero. And I say, thank you, soldier.”
I wanted to like A Farewell to Fools. Starring Gérard Depardieu and Harvey Keitel, this remake – a first in the history of Romanian cinema, if I’m correct – falls flat. Decidedly not a place you want to be when you take on such a rich, well-liked story like The Death of Ipu. My long-held conviction about remakes is simple. Don’t go there unless you can bring something new, something fresh to the material so that audiences – those familiar with or fresh to the material – can see it with new eyes. In this way a remake can be like a gift to filmgoers. It can allow them to revisit the stories and characters they love. Unfortunately, A Farewell to Fools feels less like a gift and more like a series of missed opportunities.
Set in the waning days of World War II, in a small Transylvanian village, A Farewell To Fools opens on a seemingly typical Summer day. It’s mid-August and there is a stillness that is synonymous with long, warm days. Simply put, the filming locations and cinematography prove here to be nearly perfect. There is no higher praise I could give than to admit I wanted to be there. I wanted to walk on those country roads and play in those fields. If only this feeling had been sustained, but too quickly it fades.
A child, Alex (Bogdan Iancu), is playing war with an adult, a simple man nicknamed Ipu (Gérard Depardieu). It’s clear from the outset that an injury sustained in battle has left Ipu in a permanently altered state. A French war veteran left for dead at the end of World War I, Ipu was taken in and tended to by the village priest, Father Johanis (Keitel). In this way, Ipu – whose real name is Theodore – owes his very life to the village and those who inhabit it. A debt that is ruthlessly called when a Nazi soldier is found murdered on the outskirts of town. When the murder is reported to the German authorities, they demand the culprit is handed over in 24 hours. If the villagers fail to do so, the ten highest ranking officials of the village will be publically executed.
With a set-up as historically rich as World War II and painted against a background as beautiful as the Transylvanian countryside, it’s difficult to understand why A Farewell to Fools feels so false. Is it the score, whose comical vibe insinuates itself against the film’s images, fitfully demanding your attention? Is it the strange, meandering performance of Depardieu? Or is it Keitel, whom I’ve long respected as an artist, whose accent and mannerisms seem so out of place? Perhaps what’s really to blame is the editing or the screenplay itself.
Written by director Bogdan Dreyer and Anusavan Salamanian, A Farewell to Fools seems to want to make light of this dark tale. Rather than delving into the naturally dramatic elements behind the film’s central plot, Dreyer and Salamanian attempt to play it safe by turning farcical. And maybe that would be all right, had I ever found a reason to laugh during the film. Instead, the experience leaves me feeling unnecessarily melancholy and a little disappointed.
In the end, for this filmgoer, what partially redeems A Farewell to Fools is the relationship between Ipu and Alex. Sent to the village for unknown reasons to live with his uncle, Father Johanis, Alex finds in Ipu a willing playmate and faithful friend. It is through Alex that the audience is given sympathetic license to judge the actions of the powerful against the weak. After all, only Alex seems to mind that Ipu is willing to sacrifice his life so that they all might live.
Maybe I find it all too distasteful; the idea that – instead of taking the time to ferret out who’s really to blame – a group of privileged, wealthy, and powerful people choose to sacrifice an innocent man. That this innocent man is also “simple”, not to mention a war veteran, only adds insult to injury. And while the subject matter remains timely enough to be interesting, little about A Farewell to Fools feels satisfyingly entertaining.
FNE reviews: A Farewell to Fools