March of the Penguins (France, 2005) ****
Directed by Luc Jacquet; narration written by Jordan Roberts, based on a story by Mr. Jacquet and a screenplay by Mr. Jacquet and Michel Fessler; directors of photography, Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison; edited by Sabine Emiliani; music, Alex Wurman; produced by Yves Darondeau, Christophe Lioud and Emmanuel Priou; co-produced by the Polar Institute. Released by Warner Independent Pictures and National Geographic Feature Films. Narrator: Morgan Freeman. 80 minutes. Rated G.
The inevitable - for me anyway - conclusion is that nowadays documentary films are, on the whole, far better than fiction movies. This is not comparing apples and oranges mind you. I am thinking of documentaries from all over the world versus the flicks from Hollywood, of American movies of all kinds made in Hollywood style: action pics, youth pics, would-be romantic items, fantasies, spectaculars, supernaturals, so-called historical films, youth-movies, special effects-laden ones, crime flicks, horror movies, and on and onů
I cannot generalize of course, and I am not thinking of foreign films on the list above, for the simple reason that while many imports show up in the U.S.A they still constitute a minority, get very short runs, are seen by special, small audiences in a few metropolitan cities and in sophisticated venues such as Chicago's Facets Multimedia where tons of great, imported films can also be rented.
This sad situation can be summed up by the declaration of my friend "X", a fine, intelligent professional who told me more than once "I don't go to art movies, foreign films, subtitled ones, documentaries and such. I want to be entertained" What sad limitations!
"The March of the Penguins" is one of the excellent, minoritarian documentaries which the hoi polloi will not flock to, yet deserves to be watched. It is a French documentary, but shown in a slightly modified English version, with a very good narration (in English) spoken by Morgan Freeman.
What it deals with is the life of an Emperor Penguin colony in Antarctica. The penguins are birds who cannot fly, whose survival is a miracle, whose sense of family is amazingly strong. Once a year they trek "en masse"-walking and gliding for 70 or more miles, from the sea to mating grounds. They couple in monogamous ways, give birth to a single child. It is an amazingly well shot tale of tenacity and endurance in sub-zero weather that can reach 80 below.
I will not disclose specifics, details or (for us humans) oddities. The penguins' stupendous tenacity has no peers, whether among humans or animals. The shooting of the film, over one-year-plus, is a tour-de-force, a labor of love that matches in persistence the penguins' own. It may sound crass, but there's something obscene when commercial movie-movie actors get millions of dollars for their performances while this documentary's crew probably got mere pittances --and zero name recognition --for their great, spectacular, lengthy, frozen, torturing job in " The March of Penguins." Talk of inequality!!! And to think that, to my knowledge, this must be the most difficult movie ever made!
The "March" now playing is an English-language version of the French one. The main change was to eliminate all of the original's voice-over commentaries (plural) by the single one spoken so well by Morgan Freeman. I understand that the anthropomorphic aspects were also toned down.
The original French version was titled "La Marche Napoleon." This because the penguins in question are also known as "Napoleon Penguins." I suspect an additional word-play, that is, a reference to Emperor Napoleon who, having invaded Russia, was terribly defeated by the Russian winter. The same fate came to Adolf Hitler in World War II. But the penguins, notwithstanding much attrition, gloriously survive on the whole.
How the film was shot deserves it own, separate movie. As things stand, we have to wait until its end for a few glimpses of the makers in action. When "The March" shows up on DVD, it will no doubt include footage of the filmers being filmed.
I also hope for a sub-documentary on the explorer-discoverer of that part of Antarctica, in 1840, by the expedition led by the Frenchman Dumont d'Urville, born 1790, died 1842. Ironically the man-by then an admiral-- his wife and their son all died in a train accident not too far from Paris. It was the first major mishap in the history of railroads.
D'Urville was an amazing person. A polyglot, a student of many sciences, a naval ace, a major explorer with an incredibly large record, he was, among a slew of accomplishments, the person who, during a scientific expedition in the Aegean, was informed of the discovery of a statue of Venus. He talked the French government into purchasing it. Today, the armless Venus of Milo is what welcomes you to the Louvre Museum.
When D'Urville discovered the part of the Antarctica where the penguins live, he claimed it for France and named it Terre Adelie after his wife's name. We shall hear of him again during the Polar Year in 2007-2008.
This work has been acclaimed by movie critics -- with a couple of exceptions. One comes from a man who entertains his readers by coarse (but often amusing) nay-saying. The other from Richard Roeper, the sidekick of Roger Ebert (who loved the movie) on their broadcast reviews.