Aug. 9, 2009
Danton (1983)
Grade: 77/100

Director: Andrzej Wajda
Stars: Gérard Depardieu, Wojciech Pszoniak, Roland Blanche

What it's about. A period costume drama set during the Reign of Terror within the French Revolution. France is in effect governed by a select committee headed by humorless bureaucrat Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak). The committee is a subset of a revolutionary assembly that, out of fear for their lives, rubber stamps the committee's decisions.

The committee has evolved into a vehicle for locating political opponents and condemning them to the guillotine. Danton (Gérard Depardieu), a former leader of the committee, returns to Paris from a self-imposed countryside exile. Danton seeks to end the mass executions by rallying popular support. Robespierre and his fellow committee members fear Danton's oratorical skills, as well as Danton's fiery pamphlets, printed by Desmoulins (Patrice Chéreau).

In short order, Robespierre orders the imprisonment of Danton and his allies. They are put on trial for treason, with execution the presumed outcome. Danton exhorts the gallery during the trial until his voice grows hoarse, but his fate, and that of his fellow defendants, has been sealed.

Beyond the political power struggle between Danton and Robespierre loyalists, there is also a personality difference between the antagonists. Robespierre is taciturn, self-controlled, and physically frail. Danton is gregarious, argumentative, and burly. Both are dedicated to the Revolution, but of course see it in different terms. Danton wants a general amnesty, while Robespierre seeks to stabilize the government through the elimination of opposition.

How others will see it. This subtitled French language costume drama will be inaccessible to many if not most American viewers. However, those with an interest in France's most tumultuous era will be rewarded by a thoughtful script, intelligent direction, and impassioned acting.

Per the user ratings, men prefer the film slightly more than women, despite the introduction of two supporting female roles, brainwashed Robespierre mistress Eleonore (Anne Alvaro) and Desmoulins' infant-raising wife Lucile (Angela Winkler).

Danton won the prestigious BAFTA award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was nominated for four major César Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars), winning Best Director.

How I felt about it. The historical allegory is that of Christ and Pontius Pilate. Danton is the former, arriving in the big city with fanfare to put political pressure on the government. Robespierre is like the Roman governor forced despite strong reservations to execute his political prisoner. Like Christ, Danton is born again after his demise, not in physical form but as a movement to end the Reign of Terror.

The director, Andrzej Wajda, is a native of Poland, and others have noted a more modern allegory, between union leader Lech Walesa and Poland communist party head Jaruzelski. In 1982, Walesa was imprisoned by Jaruzelski, while Danton was in production. Doubtlessly, the conflict between Robespierre and Danton has many other historical parallels. Both went down: Robespierre was also consumed by the Terror, guillotined less than four months after Danton.