When the Italian writer Primo Levi visited Auschwitz in 1982, almost 40 years since he'd been a prisoner in the German concentration camp, he told a television reporter he survived partly because he understood German. ''Between the man who makes himself understood and the one who doesn't, there is a great difference,' Levi said. 'The first survives.' Before he took his own life in 1987, Levi struggled to come to terms with the Holocaust-he thought of it as a 'turning point' for the world's Jews-and in his memoir, written 17 years after his release from Auschwitz, he recalled what it was like for him and a few other survivors who were making their way back home in 1945. The book is the basis of Francesco Rosi's film The Truce, but, in the director's reverence for Levi and in his desire to remain faithful to the memoir, he makes the mistake of telling us about his protagonist and prevents our emotional involvement with the character.
John Turturro's performance is so underplayed that rarely do you feel the drama of Levi's transition from concentration-camp prisoner to a man who's ready to return home and even to love again. There are glimpses of Turturro's genius-in a sequence with Agnieszka Wagner as Galina, a nurse in the transition camp, the actor is brilliant as the young Levi begins to rediscover his sexuality. In another scene with virtually no dialogue, in which Levi confronts German soldiers in a train station, Turturro communicates Levi's complex sensibilities, his intellectual desire to understand what the Germans had wrought, and his emotional need for some form of retribution. But even in these scenes, Rosi's presence is felt more than Turturro's; nowhere is this more evident than in Rosi's ellipses, which often replace Levi's responses to the other characters. A case in point is the moment when a pickpocket, one of the survivors with whom Levi is traveling, complains about his internment at Auschwitz. He says Levi was understandably punished by the Germans, being a Jew and an anti-fascist, but what was a minor thief doing in a concentration camp? Instead of a reaction shot of Turturro, Rosi cuts away; it's the director's moral outrage we experience and not Levi's.
The Truce was beset with production difficulties, especially on location in the Ukraine where the weather often halted filming. During principal cinematography, Rosi's cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis died, and his assistant Marco Pontecorvo had to finish the film. Despite these setbacks, The Truce is, like much of Rosi's work, visually stunning. The director's instincts about camera placement, composition and lighting often make individual scenes memorable. This is especially evident in a sequence in the middle of the film when Levi's band of refugees stop at a farm where they hope to convince the farmer and his family to feed and shelter them. Rosi moves easily from the sunlit field to the warm glow of the fire inside the farmhouse, and then to close-ups of each of the men in whose faces we read the terrible longings they're just beginning to rediscover.
The events of Levi's early life build to no apparent dramatic conclusion in The Truce, so we have no way of comprehending their significance to his later success as a writer. After all, many survived the camps, but few were able to articulate their experience of life as a Jew, as Levi did, in the wake of the Holocaust. What makes Primo Levi so special is not apparent in Rosi's film, because Levi never comes alive for us. When the gates of Auschwitz fall, at the beginning of the movie, the camera is outside the camp rather than inside with Levi-and that's where it remains throughout the film, with Rosi and not with Levi.