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TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL

Toll of the Holocaust adds up in 'Arithmetic'

France's Paolo Barzman directs a story of camp survivors and the importance of remembrance and the right to forget.

September 14, 2007|Sheldon Chad | Special to The Times

TORONTO -- When Susan Sarandon first met with the filmmaker behind "Emotional Arithmetic," the film that closes the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, the subject of the Hollywood blacklist naturally came up. "It was a connective something," said director Paolo Barzman.

Paolo's parents, Ben and Norma Barzman, were targets of the blacklist, which barred Hollywood professionals from working in the industry if they were suspected of having ties to communism and which, this November, marks its 60th anniversary.

The Barzmans, successful screenwriters in the 1940s, were warned by friends, including a young Norma Jeane Baker (who would later be known globally as Marilyn Monroe), that they were being watched. The surveillance got so intense that Groucho Marx, a neighbor, once joked, "Yes, it's hot enough for me, my mother and grandmother. Of course, it's doubly hot for you," recalls Norma Barzman, now an agile 87-year-old living in Beverly Hills.

The Barzmans decamped to Europe in 1949, and Ben got work in the film industry there, eventually using his own name and getting honored by the French Communists. The younger Barzman, 50, was born and raised in Cannes, France, for which he says he is thankful. Yet for him, it was not the blacklist that resonated most in his life, it was the proximity of the Holocaust.

"Of course, I always heard of [the blacklist], but growing up in France, the war was quite close and we were living like rich people. Mother would be moaning and complaining about the blacklist, but they were having this great life with Vittorio De Sica, Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers coming [around] at home."

Barzman remembers thinking, " 'You guys are miserable? You didn't go into the camps. There were people who were talking about the camps and real survival, and you were talking about the wounded ego.' " While he does understand their psychic pain, "at the same time, as a kid, you're living very well . . . the logic is, what is it to be happy?"

It's this "happiness" that would seem so unattainable for the three main characters of "Emotional Arithmetic," whose lives seem to have stopped at the Drancy deportation camp, where the Vichy government in France abetted the Nazis in transporting Jews, including 6,000 children, to their slaughter.

Adapted from a Matt Cohen novel of the same name by screenwriter Jefferson Lewis, "Emotional Arithmetic" is about the toll of memory on Holocaust survivors. With a cast that includes Sarandon, Christopher Plummer, Max von Sydow and Gabriel Byrne, it would seem to be the film that would take the Barzman brand back to Hollywood in a way that Ben Barzman never managed, despite his return to Los Angeles in 1977. He died in 1989.

The isolated drama reunites as adults a pair of children from the camp (Sarandon and Byrne) who had a deep love emotionally beyond their years. They meet again, along with the man who sacrificed to save them (Von Sydow) and suffered interminably for it, for 24 hours at a placid farm in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. There they seek a temporary balance to sort out the "devoir de mémoire, droit à l'oubli" (the obligation of memory and the right to forget), as Barzman says in French.

Byrne thinks that it is, in fact, impossible to forget. "It stays not only with the person but is buried within the tribal DNA. There is no way to expiate it. It still exists and still affects the present. In reality, we can't have resolution -- only fiction and art can provide it."

Sarandon's character, Melanie Lansing Winters, is a woman who identifies with all the oppressed in the world and writes filing cabinets full of letters keeping track of victims and prisoners.

"Those who decide not to hate -- reversing into the negative -- don't forget," Sarandon says. "What they decide to do with the memories, that's where they become brilliant. You don't want to forget. Healing is not pretending it didn't happen. It's what you are taking from and do with the experience."

Of the character that Von Sydow plays, a persecuted poet who goes from Auschwitz to the gulag, Byrne says simply, "he represents the thin notion of God in the world. The promise of God in the world." Screenwriter Lewis perhaps sums this up neatly with the poetry he wrote for the film, "If you ask me do I believe in God, I will say, 'Not yet.' "

But it is the last two characters here -- Melanie's husband and son -- who are closest to director Barzman's heart. He shaped the father character in his own father's image. Plummer says of the role, "I play a male nurse to the whole situation. It's a terrible responsibility."

Barzman particularly points to the way Plummer yells and screams using philosophic- al phrasing just as his father did.

And the son (Canadian actor Roy Dupuis), who is a "silent witness," Barzman identifies as having the same role he felt he had in his own family over the blacklist. "You know the territory there; it's like an axiom, you have to respect . . . . It was in the book. That's why this thing echoed so much when I read it."

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