Argentinian filmmaker Luis Puenzo's film updating of Albert Camus' classic 1947 novel is a slow but riveting contemporary parable of considerable merit.
In Oran, rumors of an outbreak of bubonic plague carried by rats--unbelievable in modern times--sends the port city into turmoil. Discovering the first victims, Dr. Rieux (William Hurt) sends his wife (Victoria Tennant) away for medical tests. He meets French TV cameraman Tarrou (Jean-Marc Barr)
and journalist Martine (Sandrine Bonnaire), who decide to stay to cover the catastrophe. As the bodies mount, the city is sealed off and troops are deployed to maintain order, especially in the local football stadium where infected citizens are quarantined. Dr. Rieux sets up a hospital at the
train station and works with Dr. Castel (Norman Edlich) on a serum.
Frightened, Martine bribes her driver, Cottard (Raul Julia), to help her escape. He double-crosses her, and makes a fortune exploiting the desperation of Oran's healthy citizens. Tarrou, unable to get his footage out of the city, volunteers to help out at the hospital. Among the newly infected
is Joseph Grand (Robert Duvall), Rieux's friend, a retired bureaucrat and recent widower; his wife of 40 years worked as a compiler of death statistics and labored for years to write the "perfect" novel. Martine, who is drawn to Rieux, volunteers to help nurse Grand.
As violent outbreaks, put down cruelly by the soldiers, increase, the city approaches panic level. Rieux learns his wife has died (although not of the plague) and allows Martine to comfort him. She is double-crossed again by Cottard and incarcerated in the stadium. The serum fails, and Father
Paneloux (Lautaro Murua), who's been preaching the plague as punishment for sin, lies down in a mass grave and is buried alive by bulldozers. Grand recovers, signaling the end of the plague, which has run its natural course. The city rejoices, while the crazed Cottard opens fire from his balcony
at Rieux and Tarrou. Tarrou saves Rieux but, distracted by Martine's screams, is shot. Rieux and Martine cradle the dead Tarrou, and Rieux's emotions break through his cool reserve for the first time. Cottard is arrested, and the film ends with the novel's final lines: "And the day will come when,
to the bane and enlightenment of men, the plague will awaken its rats and send them forth to die in a happy city."
THE PLAGUE marks a return to form for writer/director Luis Puenzo after his disastrous 1989 brush with Hollywood on the unsuccessful OLD GRINGO. He relocates Camus' novel from Algeria to the fictional Oran, a thinly disguised Buenos Aires, and uses the plague (the novel's bubonic plague, so the
film isn't over-burdened with an unwanted AIDS metaphor) as an allegory of political/social repression and military dictatorship, themes he also tackled in THE OFFICIAL STORY (1985). The screenplay is quite faithful to the novel, and Puenzo gracefully guides the characters through the sprawling
plot, his sole (minor) mis-step Cottard's too-literal, neatly-ended villainy. For each character, the plague initially means a different thing: for Paneloux, a test of faith; for Martine, a cruel exile; for Tarrou, a world TV-news event to be used for his own ends; for the mourning Grand, a
fitting end; for Rieux, a test of professional stamina; for Cottard, a lucrative business opportunity. It becomes for each (except Cottard) a life-altering, spiritual redemption. The performances are top-notch, particularly those of Bonnaire (whose character, in the book, was a man), Duvall and
Hurt, whose somewhat ponderous narration serves as a kind of chronicle/collective memory. Puenzo's pacing is stately, but the picture is never boring, maintaining a feeling of claustrophobia that is quietly, cumulatively terrifying. Puenzo includes some bizarre images, like a street barker
complete with a woman in medieval-looking rat costume; the death of the young singer, his plaintive song turning into an on-screen scream of pain; and a semi-nude dancer who uses a live rat as part of her erotic act.
This expensive-looking co-production was shot in 1991, theatrically released in Europe and traveled the Festival route in 1992, before its 1993 U.S. direct-to-video release, for which it was seamlessly cut by some forty minutes from its original 146-minute running time. (Violence, nudity,profanity.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: NR
- Review: Argentinian filmmaker Luis Puenzo's film updating of Albert Camus' classic 1947 novel is a slow but riveting contemporary parable of considerable merit. In Oran, rumors of an outbreak of bubonic plague carried by rats--unbelievable in modern times--send… (more)