This review contains spoilers for the Marseilles trilogy. If the element of surprise is important to you, watch the movies before reading any further. You may also want to read about the first two films in the trilogy, Marius and Fanny, before reading this review.
The final entry in Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles trilogy takes place 20 years after the second installment. The baby Cesariot is now a man and his father, Mr. Panisse (Charpin), is now 70 years old. Panisse and his friend Cesar (Cesariot’s godfather) are old and slow, but they reflect on the years with amazement, forgiveness, and wisdom.
Fanny has grown older, too. She hasn’t forgotten her first love, Marius, but she has been happy with Panisse who loved and provided for her and her son.
A Fond Confession
At the start of this film, Panisse is taken ill. He is bedridden in what many think is his deathbed. Friends gather around and a priest is called in. He agrees to confess his sins, on the condition that his friends stay in the room to hear them.
The confession scene is characteristically touching. The oddball characters that made up the fringe of previous movies are allowed a special place in the story; they are given a special thanks at Panisse’s bedside. Panisse confesses his little peccadilloes, appreciated now for how funny they are, and for how much fun they were to commit.
He confesses to a lie of omission that catches the priest’s ear. It is the lie that most everyone in town already knows, namely, that he hasn’t told Cesariot he’s not his biological father. The priest absolves most of the sins, but insists that Panisse tell his son the truth. Panisse simply can’t do it, and before long, he passes away.
In Search of Father
After his father’s funeral, Fanny tells Cesariot (Andre Fouche) what Panisse was never able to — that Panisse is not his real father. She talks about her younger self, about her love for Marius, about the awkward situation she found herself in, and how Panisse, came to her rescue.
Cesariot reacts angrily, emotionally — he probably gets it from his father’s side — but in a day or two he seems calmer. Without telling his mother, he sets out to find his father, a mechanic in the town across the bay.
Cesariot finds Marius and even befriends him, never letting on who he is. The two go out fishing, sharing an interest in boats. But Cesariot is unimpressed with Marius’ moral character. He was arrested some time ago, and he still hangs around with his criminal friends — who “confess” to being in the drug smuggling business (a prank played on this bothersome boy). Frightened and disgusted, Cesariot leaves immediately.
Cesariot comes home and reports to his mother and godfather what an awful man Marius has become these past twenty years. Despite their assurances, Cesariot believes his father to be morally corrupt.
A New Perspective
Marius learns what happened, and eventually returns to Marseilles to meet his son, as his son. After a rough start and some awkward introductions, Marius convinces Cesariot he’s not such a bad guy after all. He is brought home to Fanny and Cesar, and the four of them have a reconciliation. The three locals think very little of Marius, blaming him for the troubles of the past. But Marius speaks up and tells the story from his point of view.
From his vantage, he was lied to and dumped by his fiancé. He was abandoned by his family, and when he tried to return twenty years ago, he was not welcome. It’s only natural that he became bitter. For a few years, his life was ruined, and he even got arrested for some petty crimes. But eventually he settled down, working as a lonely mechanic for the last fifteen years. His “criminal” partner is no worse a man than he himself, and in fact has been his only true friend for a decade and a half.
Marius’ speech is one of the most impressive things about this film. It recasts past events in a new light. When Marius expresses his point of view, it really is novel. The characters, and therefore the audience, came to see Marius as something of a bad guy in the previous films, perhaps unfairly. Cesar forces you to reconsider and re-evaluate what you saw before. That’s an incredibly satisfying feat for a film to accomplish, and Cesar does it well.
As in the other two films, the dialogue and acting are excellent. If anything, the acting is even better than the two previous films. The actors have taken complete control of their roles, and they are completely at home in their parts. (It’s interesting to note that this is the first film in the trilogy that Pagnol actually directed. He seems to have handled the actors and the filmmaking quite well.) Cesar is an excellent cap to the two previous films. Although the second film didn’t require a followup, the third film is a great summary, a satisfying punctuation mark, peaceful closure to the soap-opera turmoil of Marius and Fanny.
Taken together, the three films in the Marseilles trilogy are one of cinema’s outstanding dramatic accomplishments.