Scen.: Jean Renoir, Carl Einstein. F.: Claude Renoir. M.: Marguerite Renoir, Suzanne de Troeye. Scgf.: Léon Bourrely. Mus.: Paul Bozzi. Ass. regia: Luchino Visconti. Int.: Charles Blavette (Antonio ‘Toni’ Canova), Jenny Hélia (Marie), Célia Montalvan (Josépha), Edouard Delmont (Fernand), Max Dalban (Albert), Andrex (Gaby), Michel Kovachevitch (Sébastian), Paul Bozzi (chitarrista). Prod.: Marcel Pagnol per Films d’aujourd’hui. DCP 4K. D.: 84’. Bn.
Jean Renoir was a true avant-gardist, able to create new types of film again and again. A supremely apt case in point is Toni, inspired by Renoir’s friendship and shared wisdom with Cartier-Bresson and a conviction that he was in a way making “a documentary on actors”. Renoir was ten years ahead of his time, and watching Toni is a revelation: neo-realism begins here.
Based on a fait divers remembered by the police commissioner of Martigues, it is a tragedy about migrant workers, who optimistically envisage new arrangements by which a multinational community can live together, creating “a new life under different stars”. Toni displays a fundamental insight into the dialectics of the national and the international: true internationalism can only stem from a profound understanding and acknowledgement of characteristic national traits. This is the idea that Renoir would soon develop further in La Grande Illusion.
One of the most ‘musical’ of Renoir’s films, Toni’s love theme reveals a familiar pattern of relationships and develops a narrative arc about friendship, love, jealousy and death caused by a misunderstanding in a philosophical direction. That is the very fabric later reworked in La Règle du jeu.
In his article “Toni” et le classicisme (in “Cahiers du Cinéma 60”, 1956) Renoir claimed that the big contemporary successes of the French cinema were based on imitations of the boulevard theatre with their exaggerated gestures. “It was merely normal that I was to defy any such artifice by telling a true story in an authentic milieu. […] I would be happy if you could fathom even just a little bit of my love for this Mediterranean community concentrated in Martigues. These workers from different origins and languages who have come to France in search of a better life are the most authentic heirs of the Greco-Roman civilization which has made us what we are.
[…] Everything had been set to work so that our efforts would be as close as possible to the documentary. Our ambition was that the audience would be able to imagine that an invisible camera had filmed the phases of a conflict without the human beings unconsciously drawn into this action being aware of it themselves. I was probably not the first to attempt a similar adventure, nor the last. Later, Italian neorealism would push the method to perfection”.
Peter von Bagh, Elokuvan historia [History of the Cinema] (1975/2004), translated by Antti Alanen