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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Family Business': A Mafia Empire With a French Accent

November 13, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

In Costa-Gavras' new film, "Family Business" (Fine Arts), the master of political melodrama ("Z") turns his eye on something more personal than governments or wars. He takes an intimate, comic look at that dark contradiction that is also at the heart of the "Godfather" movies--the weird intermarriage of crime and bourgeois values.

"The Godfather," a pop Jacobean epic, showed an immigrant family's financial empire built on blood, intimidation and gunplay. "Family Business," more slyly and simply, shows us an amiable, diligent brood of Parisian burglars.

The family consists of Papa (Johnny Hallyday), Mother (Fanny Ardant) and the children, played at different ages by Laurent Romor and Remi Martin (both as Francois) and Juliette Rennes and Caroline Pochon (as younger sister Martine.) There's also an unrelated friend, "Uncle" Faucon (Guy Marchand), Dad's gloweringly faithful, slightly high-strung prison-mate and partner. These people work hard, save. Finally, after years of toil and steady success, they attract the attention of the Mafia--who want to give them a franchise. Like many small independents, this whiff of success goes to their heads.

Gavras, with some of Bunuel's cool dispassion, shows typical familial schisms. Mother is an aesthete and leftist, the dispossessed daughter of a wealthy provincial family; her visit to them is the movie's finest scene. Dad is conservative and devoutly religious. Francois is a feisty rebel who blackmails his way into the business, then tries to cut his way out.

There are dark corners. Martine, infatuated with Francois, keeps trying to seduce him. A faint hint of homosexuality colors the relationship between Faucon and Dad--though it's Dad, not Faucon, who secretly sabotages his buddy's romantic opportunities. Like many well-adjusted bourgeoisie, the family represses destructive temptations, devotes their energies to upward mobility. They dedicate themselves to the craft of theft, with the devotion of samurai.

Like John Huston, Jules Dassin and Jean-Pierre Melville, Gavras exhaustively shows the mechanics of thievery: spreading tiger dung to frighten away watch dogs, Papa's relentless concentration on the safe tumblers. But Gavras' goal is different. He refuses to play up either the glamour or tragedy of outlawry; the audience never gets a chance to exorcise darker desires by watching vile appetites wantonly indulged. This outlaw family is obsessively conformist and image-conscious and, as we watch, their story flows by at the even pace of a long family saga. The values and borders between this underworld and our own begin to tremble and blur.

There's something slightly shifty and unsatisfying at the moral center of "Family Business," and that may come in the character of Francois--through whose eyes we watch all the events. What does he feel? When does he change? The older Francois--played by Remi Martin, one of the delinquents in "Tea in the Harem," is more opaque than the younger. He seems strangely cold, surly and serious. With his innate sincerity, he is a viper in his family's bosom.

Gavras, returning to French films, after his American interlude, seems to have developed an effortless command of his skills, sweeping us into the movie's deceptively casual, yet steely rhythms. And though this film may seem to pale next to ones like "Missing," it's brilliantly directed and acted--especially by Fanny Ardant and the superb Guy Marchand. "Family Business" (Times-rated; mature, for sex, partial nudity) smoothly builds up a twisted saga of success and family love, never losing its mordant naturalism or the black, dry grip of its icily moral humor.

The ending is a piece of chilly irony; Gavras doesn't soothe us with the obvious moral that crime doesn't pay. Indeed, the movie never overtly moralizes at all. Its method is more subtle. It simply shows us a family--how it rises, how it falls, and how the ties of love and money strengthen or dissolve in the crucible of time. Hypocrisy, Montaigne once said, is the debt vice pays to virtue--and for this family, virtue extracts a peculiar tax. Crime and conformity become incestuously entangled; honesty is the deviation that can cut them apart.

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