The New York Times was far kinder in its very brief review of “The Journey of Primo Levi” than I will be. Film director, Davide Ferrario, lives in Primo Levi’s hometown of Turin, but his documentary production is misnamed. It is only partially about Levi, the world-renowned Italian-Jewish writer and Auschwitz survivor who is thought to have taken his own life in 1987. And, although it tracks his circuitous route from Poland back home to Turin after being liberated by the Soviet Army in 1945, it is not really about Levi’s journey.
For no discernible reason, Levi and 800 of his fellow Italian ex-prisoners are transported by train hundreds of miles north and east, rather than directly repatriated west and south to Italy. Their return trip lasted eight months.
Mr. Ferrario has devised a conceit to retrace their path through much of Eastern Europe 60 years later, matching his film crew’s journey in 2005 with geographically appropriate selections of Levi’s words read from his 1963 memoir, “The Truce” (published in the US as “The Reawakening”), by the distinguished American actor, Chris Cooper. We occasionally view the author on stock film footage — this intense, physically slight individual, visiting his former place of imprisonment at Auschwitz or walking alone, pensive, often smoking in unidentified places.
We ache for more of these glimpses of Primo Levi and to hear his soulful words recited by Mr. Cooper. Instead, we are distracted – sometimes engagingly, sometimes tediously – by stories and images from contemporary Eastern Europe or even from 20-30 years before. In the process, the viewer learns more about the decade and a half since the end of Communist rule and the fall of the Soviet Union than about Primo Levi.
After leaving the grounds of Auschwitz, except for one passage read by Chris Cooper, not a single scene refers to Jews. The filmmaker is expropriating the symbolism of Levi’s journey to depict the desolation and dislocation of post-Soviet Eastern Europe as a parallel to the greater human and material detritus left in the wake of World War II.
Read more detailed version of this review at New Jersey Jewish News Web site.