Set amidst the coal-mining French countryside of the 19th century, Berri's adaptation of the Emile Zola novel is a sprawling, lengthy (158 minutes), and thoroughly grim quasi-epic that tackles everything from love and death to labor relations and class war. Fortunately, director Berri is a master of the leisurely epic mode, as earlier films Jean de Florette
and Manon of the Spring
ably show. Depardieu is Maheu, the head of a poor mining family. Like his father before him, and his grandfather before him, Maheu and his family (even the children) rise before sunrise six days a week and troupe off to the mines, where they ride the cages down into the claustrophobic, treacherous earth. When an unemployed mechanic named Etienne Lantier (Renaud) shows up seeking work, he is assigned to Maheu's team and the two quickly become friends. Conditions in the mines, meanwhile, are becoming more hazardous by the moment; the practice of timbering -- shoring up the mineshaft roof with sturdy wooden beams to prevent cave-ins -- has fallen into neglect as the miners scramble to load out as much raw coal as possible. The more they bring out, the more money they earn, and higher wages mean bread on the table and food in children's bellies. Times are hard for both the workers and management; Maheu's wife (along with many others) has taken to begging and she's made an “arrangement” with the loutish, cutthroat grocer to procure more food and coffee. Management is likewise up against the proverbial wall, facing the possible necessity of layoffs, cutbacks, and the like. The rich are struggling to maintain their fortunes, and the poor are getting surly. Etienne, meanwhile, has become enamored with the idea of forming a workers collective, like the one recently created in Great Britain. Slowly, patiently, he sells his fellow miners on the notion and the descision to strike is made, a descision that will test the mettle of not only the Maheu clan, but also the miners and their bosses as well. Berri has recreated the time period down to the last detail, using an actual abandoned mining village as his chief set. The patina of grime and soot is so thick on Germinal,
it's a wonder the projectionist doesn't have to hose down the lens after every screening; an air of desperate depression hangs like a pall over the film, as well, but to Etienne and the optimistic Maheu, there is always hope. Cinematographer Yves Angelo fills the screen with striking images: the huge, filthy mining operation, belching fires around the clock, the miners themselves endlessly pouring into and out of the shafts, the opulent mansions of the overlords. Berri's film is beautiful to look at, a magnificent, grandiose slab of French history that resonates as powerfully today as it did when Zola wrote it over a century ago.