‘Back to Normandy’ pays tribute to a countryside and its people

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, February 5, 2009 5:27pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Although the documentary “Back to Normandy” is about the filming of a movie in 1976, you don’t need to be familiar with that previous film.

Even hardcore arthouse denizens have probably not seen the original film, which is titled “I, Pierre Riviere,” and was made by a lesser-known French filmmaker, Rene Allio.

The director of “Back to Normandy,” Nicolas Philibert, was a young assistant on that movie.

Philibert returns to the Normandy countryside, where “I, Pierre Riviere” was shot, and interviews many of the performers from the movie, who were not actors at all, but real Normandy farmers and workers.

Their lives appear to be mostly unchanged since the 1970s, although almost all of them have warm memories of the filming.

Philibert includes passages of their bucolic life — the birthing of piglets, the harvesting of grain — perhaps to contrast with the memories of moviemaking.

“Back to Normandy” has a cheerful tone (aided by the fact that the Normans interviewed all seem to cherish a certain sarcastic humor).

This belies the subject of Rene Allio’s film, which you might glean if you understand that the full title is “I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother …”

The film was based on a true story that happened in the Normandy countryside, not far from the site of filming, in the 1830s. A disturbed young man killed much of his family and was later convicted of the crime; he left behind a carefully written confession.

A few of the locals involved in the filming have clearly thought a lot about the story.

One woman is involved in caring for mentally ill patients and feels the film might have helped her understanding of the subject.

Another couple discovered that one of their daughters was schizophrenic, a condition the real Pierre Riviere probably had.

Director Philibert previously made the 2002 gem “To Be and To Have,” a beautiful nonfiction look at the rhythms of an academic year in a small country schoolhouse.

“Back to Normandy” doesn’t reach those heights, but it is a gentle tribute to a landscape and a people, as well as the filmmaker’s own past.

The Northwest Film Forum screenings of “Back to Normandy” will be followed by showings of “I, Pierre Riviere,” an unusual chance to see the bookends of this moviemaking experiment.

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