There is no sex nor shooting, no car chases nor celebrities in this picture. What it has is an unusually self-possessed little girl with an intelligent and expressive face and a director who gets a remarkable performance out of her and knows how to film her.
Nine-year-old Anna de la Mesa (Nina Kervel) has a problem. She has a very clear idea of things comme il faut, and what she wants and needs.
But it is Paris in the early 1970s, hung-over from the upheaval of May 1968 when upward social mobility caught up with postwar economic prosperity and turned the traditional conservative Roman Catholic France of Charles de Gaulle on its ear.
Anna’s parents, Fernando (Stefano Accorsi) and Marie (Julie Depardieu), both university-educated professionals from affluent backgrounds, are trying to find their way in the brave new vanguard of the left as they bring up Anna and her 4-year-old brother François (Benjamin Feuillet).
Not just affluent: Marie’s parents live at house and vineyard with the family name in Bordeaux; Fernando’s parents were Spanish aristocrats with ties to General Francisco Franco, in power in Spain since the end of the civil war in 1939 (Franco died in November 1975).
The movie opens at the wedding of Marie’s sister, Isabelle (Marie Kremer), at their parents’ estate in Bordeaux. Anna, at the head of a table of small children, looks on with cool disdain as the other children mangle fruit with a knife and fork after she perfectly has peeled an orange.
‘P'quoi ne fait rien elle?’ another girl asks.
‘Elle ne parle pas français,’ Anna says. ‘Elle s’appelle Pilar. Elle est espagnole.’
Pilar (Raphaëlle Molinier) is Anna’s cousin. She is in France with her mother Marga (Mar Sodupe), a political exile from Spain where her husband was killed by the regime. Anna is unhappy because her father has invited his sister Marga and Pilar to live with them in Paris. This is only the first of many changes Anna will be forced to face.
Fernando, a lawyer and ‘parlor pink’, has resolved to get more engaged in politics. He quits his job to get more involved in the left-leaning politics of Latin America. Marie, a staff writer at the French women’s magazine Marie Claire, will support the family. But Fernando encourages his wife also to become politically active: Marie takes aim at the country’s 50-year-old law banning abortion.
Reduced circumstances means moving from their house to an apartment and Fernando’s new activism fosters a beard and a collection of bearded young men in the place at all hours. He supports his wife’s desire to write a book arguing that abortion should be a woman’s choice, which takes her to the busy center of political feminism.
But most of this activity is captured in bits and pieces, processed through the eyes of the watchful nine-year-old Anna, taught by a nun (Carole Franck), close to a patrician grandmother (Martine Chevallier) who finds subjects like sex and feminism things better left unsaid, and whose school friend Cécile (Gabrielle Vallières) calls Anna’s parents ‘beatnik-hippies’ without any idea of what that means. Anna’s Cuban nanny Filomena (Marie-Noëlle Bordeaux) fled the Castro regime and tells her that communists are red ‘barbudos’ who do not fear God.
Everyone talks; but most of the adults are so wrapped up in themselves and their causes that they forget that this alert little person taking in all this ferment is only nine years old.
After Fernando and Marie let Filomena go because they can no longer afford a full time nanny, Filomena tells Anna that her parents ‘fired’ her because they are communists. She tells Anna that she lost her house in Cuba because of the communists, ‘and now you must abandon yours!’
‘C’est Fidel! Il se rend tous fous!’ Filomena says.
‘Mais alors, c’est la faute à Fidel!’ Anna declares, giving us the title. But for all the ‘blame’ ascribed to him, Anna really has no idea who—or what—this ‘Fidel’ is.
In the same sense, Anna watches her grandfather (Olivier Perrier) grieve over the death of General Charles de Gaulle in November 1970. A television announcer solemnly tells the public: ‘La France est veuve.’
‘Le Général est mort. Tout est fini,’ her grandfather says, glumly staring out a window.
Later, Anna sees her Aunt Isabelle, visiting Marie, weeping inconsolably. No one tells Anna that Isabelle is distraught because she is pregnant before she wants to be.
‘Is it because of The General?’ Anna asks her mother, with concern for Isabelle, again picking up on the tone without much of an idea who this ‘General’ is.
Writer and director Julie Gavras based her screenplay on Domatilla Calmai’s novel Tutta colpa di Fidel, with details from her own life. Like Sophia Coppola, Gavras, daughter of director Costa Gavras of Z (1969), État de siège [State of Siege] (1972) and Missing (1982), knows whereof she speaks.
One of the wonders of this well cast, well made film is that Gavras makes working with these child actors look so easy. Like Morris Engel’s child actors, neither is a professional and this is the only film in which they have appeared.
The story is seen mainly through the eyes of a child, but Gavras also has taken care to show that these times are formative years for each of her characters. The action takes place roughly from the fall of 1970, when de Gaulle died and Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile, to Allende’s ouster in September 1973.
There is a resonant echo of the opening ‘orange’ scene near the end of the film, when Emilio (Francisco Lopez-Ballo), one of Fernando’s ‘barbudos’, uses an orange he peels by hand to explain to Anna his views on the redistribution of wealth.
The best developed relationship is that of Anna and her mother, which makes a comment on the first generation of mass market political feminism.
Anna listens out of sight to the women Marie interviews for her book, and Marie in a sense ‘grows up’ alongside her daughter through her raised awareness in the work she does that genuinely helps women. In this way, she eclipses her husband, involved in revolution in theory, at a distance.