A Second Invasion of Normandy

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I saw Luc Besson’s The Family this weekend and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but in ways that I never expected to.  I struggle to describe the film in terms of genre.  As a fan of action movies I have enjoyed work from or influenced by Luc Besson for most of my life.  His films are notoriously straightforward, explosive, visually charged, and funny.  The Fifth Element, the wonderfully-choreographed Banlieu 13 (District 13 in English) and its sequel, Taken 2, and other action movies are staple rentals of mine.  They’re great popcorn fun.

If asked, I would say that there are two things Luc Besson never provides: subtlety or boredom.  The film’s trailer certainly promised another solid helping of Besson-style violent escapism.  It does deliver that, but with a surprising new twist.  The Family demands that I reduce my list to a single item.  Luc Besson’s work is never boring.

Subtlety abounds in this story of a mafia family hiding out in rural France as part of an American witness protection project, where they abjectly and violently fail to fit in.  Robert De Niro’s character Giovanni Manzoni is effectively trapped in his own home as part of his protection deal.  While there Mr. De Niro provides us with the image of a man under tremendous, sometimes conflicting internal pressures.  He is no longer the provider and protector for his family, and the very bold violent attributes that made him a powerful father figure in the past now endanger his own children.  He is also going subtly mad in the conflict between his decision to leave the mafia life as an informant and the fact that his entire sense of self-worth and identity is tied up in the criminal life he has to leave behind.  Luc Besson uses the mechanism of a memoir to give voice to this conflict, and De Niro’s voice overs are a thing of beauty.  Tommy Lee Jones does not play an overly large part, but his straight-shooting straight man routine has to stand up to De Niro’s flashy character with little but screen presence and nonverbal communication, and we all benefit from the strength in casting.

Michelle Pfeiffer’s mafiosa wife is delightfully refined and ruthless in turns.  The children are less subtle, but their performances as a physically violent beauty queen and a wheeling and dealing freshman are solid enough that both performers might show up again in the future.

This is a gratuitously violent film, and there are no apologies made about that fact.  It is quite easy to believe that a group of people as quickly and thoroughly capable of retribution could rise to the top of a local mafia.  Luke Besson’s backup characters are stock, but they are bright, colorful, and work well with the cartoonish violence offered up for consumption.

Luc Besson does one more thing that impresses me in this film.  I came to the movie prepared to deal with a certain glorification of the mafia lifestyle, and it is certainly present.  However, there is a subtle undertone that no matter how clever, violent, or devious a criminal is, sooner or later the consequences of a lawless life bring pain and destruction.  Premarital sex (frankly, rape by modern terms) leads to heartache and despair.  Cheating and threats lead to discovery and consequences.  The family itself is defined by the negative consequences of their criminal and sinful choices, no matter how entertaining they might be on screen.

But neither are the characters unlikeable or beyond our sympathy.  A boy who has never seen honesty or hard work could do nothing but grow up as a manipulative person.  A girl who has seen only romance or violence would look to a storybook romance to escape her life.  The parents’ strained marriage endures despite the consequences of their lost past.

Luc Besson’s scripts are sprinkled with moments of fun.  The family’s son has a great scene where he stands in awe of everything his father can communicate with the single word F—.  Some of the humor is so dry you could spread butter on it, delivered deadpan and moved past so quick I laughed half a minute after it had happened.

All of those elements combine to add a unique and surprising flavor to the European master of campy violence, Mr. Luc Besson.  I came to see a relatively mindless action flick.  I got a semi-mindful action flick and enjoyed myself along the way.

Now, as a Christian reviewer there was one comment that I wanted to deal with because it has stuck with me for days since I saw it.   The local parish priest has a series of interactions with Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, and it culminates in a real tragedy about how the world sees the church.

SPOILER ALERT.

The Catholic priest shouts at Pfeiffer, as near as I can remember, “Get out!  This is a holy place and you don’t belong here.  Your whole life is a marriage to Satan!”

On one hand, the priest is giving the Law a fair voice.  I’ve never been able to stomach the mafia movie idea that as long as you go to church and confession, it doesn’t matter who you beat/rape/torture.  That isn’t repentance that can be forgiven.  That’s calling God blind and impotent because you don’t think you’re going to get caught playing him for a fool.  This family is still violent, deceptive, vengeful, and staying married doesn’t make the ongoing felony habit all right.

And yes, the church is a holy place, because of the God who is in the church.  The correct response after the Law is the Gospel.  It was good to call her out on her ongoing sin, but that is precisely where a sinner needs to be, to hear the Good News of God’s forgiveness, loved, and shown a better way.  It makes me sad that the world of film understands the church’s judgment all to well, and they never have encountered the Grace that lies beyond it.

Theology aside, this movie was worth the price of a matinee for sure.

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