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Toronto Film Festival: Review of “The Survivor”, by Barry Levinson (Gala)

An almost mathematical combination of SCHINDLER'S LIST and WILD BULL, but with very few of the thematic challenges and formal risks of those two cl


An almost mathematical combination of SCHINDLER’S LIST and WILD BULL, but with very few of the thematic challenges and formal risks of those two classics, THE SURVIVOR tells a story that seems set up for the cinema, that of a young Jew who survived the Holocaust with pineapples and ended up landing in the United States, where he became a psychologically disturbed professional boxer. Beyond the modifications that were surely made to give his life the structure of a traditional film plot, the story is real.

When we meet him, Harry Haft is a boxer who fights professionally in the United States. His style is that of the classic tortured fighter who gives and receives blows almost to the open face, the kind that are clearly clearing up blame or dealing with psychological problems. Just by seeing him in the ring and observing the way the director of RAIN MAN staging their fights, one realizes that the 1980 Martin Scorsese classic was on the priority list when the film was visually prepared. And not only because of the boxing scenes: the look of Haft (Ben Foster) in his North American stage seems to be copied from that of Robert De Niro in that film, several weight gains included.

Haft, however, has a very different past than Jake La Motta. Born in Poland – his real name was Herschel – the guy is an Auschwitz survivor, something made clear by the brief, violent black-and-white flashes that pop into his mind and distract him while boxing. Little by little, and through flashbacks longer, we will know more about its history there. In the concentration camp, Haft boxed with other Jewish prisoners, something that began as entertainment – forced by the Nazis, especially the young hierarch Schneider (Billy Magnussen) – but which, with the passage of time and the increasingly dense situation there, became a matter of life and death.

Harry now carries the blame for what he went through there and his professional fights are a way to deal with his nightmares and trauma. In the United States things are not so easy for him either because his success as «The Auschwitz Survivor » He begins to darken when he gives an interview to a journalist (played by Peter Sarsgaard) in which he reveals details of what he did there, details that are not very popular with boxing fans or the Jewish community. And to that he adds another pain, if you will, more personal, since he seeks to know the whereabouts of Leah, a partner he had in Poland and who, he supposes, is also in the United States. The one who helps her look for her is Miriam (Vicky Krieps) and in the difficult process of accessing some information, the two begin to get to know each other better.

Levinson narrates the two stages of Haft’s life as the boxer prepares for what, he hopes, will be the great fight of his life: facing the then young but already highly respected “Rocky” Marciano, a rival clearly superior to him. Training for that fight, Haft establishes a curious friendship with Marciano’s manager, a Polish Jew played by Danny DeVito who prepares him to face his own fighter so that his defeat is not as catastrophic as everyone predicts. Harry knows that winning is very difficult, but he hopes that this fight with a famous rival will get him in the newspapers and that Leah knows that he is there too.

Throughout the more than two hours that it lasts THE SURVIVOR, Levinson (and his screenwriter Justine Juel Gilmerit) will add more and more data and situations to the already complicated and long story. Also like WILD BULL, the film is not built around the “big fight” against Marciano but goes on and on until the 1960s, showing scenes much later in Haft’s life, in which the film somehow tries to find a hopeful though. unlikely closure to the most tortured parts of your life.

For Foster it is one of those jobs that cry out (perhaps exaggeratedly) for an Oscar nomination. The actor of WITHOUT A TRACE he gains a lot of weight – from the cadaverous thinness of Auschwitz to the more resounding body of his middle age, going through an intermission that is his stage as a professional boxer – and composes a somewhat sparing character, with a very strong accent and mixing words in idishe. It is about those works of great brilliance, but Foster – an actor who generally internalizes more than what he expresses outwardly – makes it credible, realistic, true. The film “exhibits” it more than it exhibits itself.

THE SURVIVOR It is not a great film – it is too conventional, many of its movements are predictable and it ends up being a bit long – and perhaps Foster’s performance does not go down in history for that. But anyway it is a very human, honest and at times quite emotional story, a film that clearly represents something very personal for the director of GOOD MORNING VIETNAM and BUGSY, who turns 80 in 2022 and who had been dedicating himself to biopics television not too relevant. A film focused on memory, complicated and conflictive, full of guilt and regrets, of a man who lived his entire life fighting against his own shadow. As the title says, a survivor.