Review / ‘Monsieur Chocolat’ (M) ****

CIRCUS has a long and honorable tradition of entertaining all social strata with acts they couldn’t see in any other way. It’s fair to say that after a slow start, cinema has relegated it to the back stalls of entertainment. And political correctness has demoted it to the sanitised, animal-free, modern kind.

French filmmaker Roschdy Zem has looked back a century to bring us a story about how the son of Haitian slaves in 1897 embarked on a career that took him to the height of Parisian circus, which in those days played in permanent buildings.

The screenplay by Cyril Gely and Oliver Gorce opens in the travelling Delvaux circus performing under canvas. M. Delvaux is auditioning new acts. Clown Footit (James Thierree) isn’t pulling crowds. A roustabout wants to better his life. Footit takes him on as fall guy in a tumbling comedy act. He needs a name. Chocolat is a natural choice.

And Omar Sy plays him in a bravura performance that cries out for acclaim when the next film-industry, peer-group assessment season comes around.

The film covers the rise and fall of a man who deserved better but, having tasted it, wasted it on the frivolities that accompany sudden success.

In Paris, Footit and Chocolat were a huge success. The partnership and the friendship were sometimes at odds with each other. Footit was a dedicated professional whose private life the film portrays as rather ascetic. Chocolat was a spendthrift, gambler, womaniser and laudanum junkie. Worst, Madame Delvaux betrayed him to the cops for being in France without the appropriate documentation, which saw him in prison where a black freedom fighter befriended him.

When Chocolat voiced his ambition to play Othello the balloon went up. As Omar Sy plays the closing scene, it was a memorable performance. Irrational racial prejudice brought him down on opening night.

He ended his days in poverty exactly a century ago. We in the film audience can come away aware of having seen a film that tells a story of courage and compassion with performance skills that do its technically-difficult subject admirable honour.

At Palace Electric

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