A mime caught in the Holocaust gives power to 'The Last Butterfly'

January 21, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Last Butterfly," which opens today at the Westview, might be best considered a footnote to another film already in the market, Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List."

But it's not really an attempt to "cash in" on Spielberg or the Holocaust, as it was clearly made some years back, when the events of 1939-1945 were box office poison. It turns out to be in its own way an engaging and tragic memorial to the darkest of all times.

Like "Schindler's List," it re-creates the iconography of the Holocaust, though since the director, Karel Kachyna, isn't nearly the dynamic artist that Spielberg is, his compositions are more inert and lack the thunderous force of Spielberg's. Still, they have undeniable cumulative power, even if at times Kachyna yields to the crassest of sentimentality.

But more to the point, "The Last Butterfly" shares with "Schindler's List" a theme: the engagement of an apolitical non-Jew in the Jewish cause, his awakening to the moral significance of the event and his willingness to pay the price for it. Like Oskar Schindler, Antoine Moreau is a just man.

Unlike "Schindler," however, this story appears to have no co-efficient in reality. The movie chronicles the fictitious life of one Antoine Moreau, a famous Parisian mime who, after having offended the Nazis with a sketch based on the Sieg-Heil salute, is "hired" by them to perform at a "model city" for Jews in Czechoslovakia. (The film is a British-Czech co-production.)

Thus this show-biz type, used to lovers and wine and adoration, is dumped into the middle of a hell that he has heretofore not even known existed. The film is at its best in evoking his sense of surrealism as he encounters an inverted universe, where not only are the laws capricious but to violate them is to encounter instant and violent rebuke. The city is in fact a concentration camp with flowers, a Potemkin village engineered by the Nazis to con the Swedish Red Cross into thinking they're treating their guests humanely.

Moreau is played by the great British actor Tom Courtenay. He ultimately manages to convey the moral growth and the passion in this man, who makes his living -- ugh! -- being fenced in by invisible walls or struggling against nonexistent winds. If a man such as myself, who finds mime almost as irritating as other people's whiny children, can say nice things about the performance, imagine what those of you who love mime will think!

Kachyna, working from a screenplay by Ota Hofman and himself, hopelessly sentimentalizes some of Moreau's discoveries in a way the more rigorous Spielberg would never have permitted: The children of the camp, for example, are turned into some kind of Our Gang group of mischief-makers, and Moreau even has a treacly conventional love affair with a woman in the camp.

Yet Antoine, the most selfish of men, realizes that he must make a moral statement, no matter the cost. The form of rebellion that Antoine ultimately choses is extremely powerful -- the movie's best moment, creating a moment of theater magic unbelievably powerful -- and guarantees his fate and our compassion.

Knowing nothing about "The Last Butterfly" and expecting even less, I was surprised by its power.

"The Last Butterfly"

Starring Tom Courtenay

Directed by Karel Kachyna

Released by Arrow

Unrated

***

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