Based on an actual crime dossier, Jean Renoir’s Toni realistically depicts ordinary lives, thus departing from the theatrical or lyrically impressionistic styles that had dominated French cinema. Renoir filmed on location in Martigues, a village in southern France, blending local residents and professional actors and directly recording sound.
Immigrants from Italy and Spain have come to Martigues in order to work. Antonio Canova, “Toni,” arrives by train from Italy, grateful for the opportunity to work as a quarryman but already homesick, as are others, as their singing suggests. Track laborers exchange remarks as the train passes, one expressing antipathy for these interlopers but the other noting that the men, like themselves, simply want to work in order to survive. Over the course of three years, a couple disintegrates and two bad marriages result. Toni, although innocent, is shot dead for an ensuing marital murder. Another trainload of immigrant workers and their families pulls in; in the closing shot, they are walking to their new lives, the children in particular appearing uprooted.
Some of the shots are extraordinarily complex, such as a deep-focus one in which Toni and a fellow worker converse high up in the foreground while in the background, far below, others are busily in motion: a two-person closeup and a long shot, juxtaposing minimal movement (conversation) and considerable movement (work), within the same frame. Thus film historian Eric Rhode refers to the film’s “socializing [of] space.” The one gorgeously lyrical shot, as a woman rows across a lake, is cuttingly ironic: she is about to pretend a suicide attempt—a reflection of her unhappy marriage. Tracking shots of workers walking are typical of Renoir’s liberating method.
Coincidentally, an Italian immigrant named Luchino Visconti assisted Renoir. Thus his Ossessione eight years hence, and the birth of Italian neorealism.
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