A Farewell To Fools has all the elements of a potentially hackneyed but broadly appealing World War II drama: Nazis, intrigue, a wise fool, a knowing child, a morally compromised priest, and so forth. It’s headlined by Gérard Depardieu and Harvey Keitel, veterans who’ve classed up international productions for about four decades apiece. And yet the film’s uncertainty over what it wants to be holds it back: Is it a comedy of manners, or lack of manners? Is it a satire? A fraught tale of human paranoia? The weak script, uneven performances, and unconvincing finale don’t clarify things one way or another.
As the movie opens, Nazis deliver a German soldier’s body to the town square of a small, picturesque Romanian village, announcing that if no one admits culpability in the murder, the town’s 10 leading authorities will be shot. Village priest Father Johanis, whom Keitel plays somewhat vacantly, assumes responsibility for finding the culprit. Keitel seems like a good casting choice, given that even the most ominous of his characters (from his lead in Bad Lieutenant to his “Wolf” in Pulp Fiction) speak in a vaguely pious tone, with each word acquiring its own importance and weight. But here, he talks with a leaden, thumping quality, as if he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, or as if he’s only half-present. As Father Johanis tries to get to the bottom of the crime, he and his fellow village authorities settle on a novel plan: They’ll make the innocent village idiot, Ipu (Depardieu), admit to killing the German.
Depardieu is in fine form: His grand bulk, combined with the look of wonder flickering across his face, brings presence to the role. He carries and expresses himself far more comfortably than Keitel; Ipu stands as the moral center in a community that morally bankrupts itself to save lives. The villagers’ plot is executed in a long dinner party during which Ipu is wined, dined, and persuaded to take the heat. It’s an unconvincing scene, and The Dancer Upstairs’ Laura Morante, in particular, over-emotes outrageously as a villager crying out that she’s pregnant and doesn’t want to die. The belabored quality of her delivery, and the other diners’, makes them sound like performers in a school play, not careful plotters.
Better is the curious friendship between Ipu and Alex (Bogdan Iancu), the young boy who found the soldier’s body in the first place. Together, the two indulge in Walter Mitty-esque heroic fantasies that provide some of A Farewell To Fools’ most elevating, relaxed moments. Alex’s lines are often stiff, but Iancu’s enthusiasm is beautiful. Ultimately, though, fantasy is replaced by dark reality—which is in turn displaced by a surprise ending that departs too sharply from the rest of the film.
Though the story’s directness and simplicity are admirable, the ending’s moral ambiguity is frustrating. So many soft-focus, emotionally charged war films, from Au Revoir Les Enfants to Life Is Beautiful to Schindler’s List, have taken up this time period that it’s difficult to view Fools without a jaundiced eye, or at least a resounding question: What new slant will this offer? Not much of one, it turns out, since the film stakes a claim about the pettiness of humankind in heavy-handed terms, pursues it doggedly and with great drama, then yanks that claim away for the stake of a grander notion of universal justice. A Farewell To Fools winds up singing an old song, and not particularly well.