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Home #Hwoodtimes THE BIG HIT: French Prisoners Shine in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”

THE BIG HIT: French Prisoners Shine in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”

By Jim Gilles

A much-anticipated French comedy The Big Hit (Un Triomphe, 2021) had its West Coast premiere at the COLCOA French Film Festival in Los Angeles on Saturday night at the Directors Guild of America. Multitalented French screen star Kad Merad gives a powerful performance in the Big Hit, with a talented cast in this comedy screened at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival and has received a number of film festival awards. The Big Hit stars Kad Merad as a down-and-out actor who lands a gig running a prison theatre workshop and decides to mount a full-fledged production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with his ragtag troupe of inmates. Based on a true story, this touching film illustrates Beckett’s view of the human condition of endless waiting for someone or something to happen to change our lives. It is a particular metaphor for the prisoners waiting in hope of parole and their director whose life and career seem directionless. The Big Hit is the second feature of Co-writer and director Emmanuel Courcol, who is primarily a screenwriter but has turned his interest to directing.

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Etienne & prisoners performance of Waiting for Godot

Courcol has a talented cast in The Big Hit: Kad Merad (Etienne), David Ayala (Patrick), Lamine Cissokho (Alex), Sofian Khammes (Kamel), Pierre Lottin (Dylan), Wabinlé Nabié (Moussa), Alexandre Medvedev (Boïko), Saïd Benchnafa (Nabil). This film has been very popular at the box office in France because of its endearing qualities. But, after all, it is a French comedy and probably never intended to be as deep or humanistic as the Taviani Brothers’ Caesar Must Die (Italy, 2012), which used actual prisoners in its prison production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Kad Merad as Etienner, the prison theatre director

Kad Merad plays Etienne, an actor, who has received a job leading a theater workshop in prison. The five inmates (Patrick, Alex, Jordan, Moussa and Nabil), unhappy with the man who previously ran the workshop, are initially reluctant. But Etienne manages to motivate them and plans to put on the play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, which reflects the life of the prisoners, the latter complaining of spending their time waiting. While the workshop was only supposed to last a few days, he convinced the director of the prison to do six months of rehearsals in order to be able to carry out her project, and the actors would be paid, like professionals.

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Kamel & Moussa rehearing as Vladmir & Estragon in Waiting for Godot

One day, when Etienne is about to leave, another inmate, Kamel, shows him that he has read the play and asks him for a role, but without success, the roles have already been distributed. However, 4 months later, Kamel managed to replace Nabil, who supposedly wanted to work instead of participating in the play. This is not without problems, because the detainees will have to have the judge’s agreement to be able to go out to play the play in a real theater, and this is less certain for Kamel. The days of rehearsal follow one another.

On the day of the performance, the team leaves for the Croix-Rousse theater. An unforeseen event occurs: Kamel no longer wants to play. He actually only wanted to play for his son, who didn’t come. Etienne tries to convince him to come and play, in vain. It is then announced that the director (Etienne) will read the role to replace Kamel. Finally, just in time, Kamel arrives on stage. At the end of the performance, the spectators are enthusiastic.

As for Etienne, he is disappointed that his daughter Nina did not come. This will be justified by saying that she had exams to revise. She is also furious with her father, who did not ask her how the exams went. After all, Nina is busy with her university studies and close to her mother, from whom Etienne has been estranged for many years.

Etienne & inmates at prison theatre workshop

Following the success of the performance, which was initially intended to be unique, other cities also applied. The second performance goes into a spin, which makes the spectators laugh, but Etienne is furious at the lack of professionalism. Everything will go relatively well thereafter, even if before a performance, the inmates went out (without permission) to go to the hairdresser
to have their hair dyed; fortunately, only Etienne was aware of it. Kamel had the joy of seeing his son attend the last performance. As for Etienne, he is disappointed that his daughter Nina did not come. This will be justified by saying that she had exams to revise. She is also furious with her father, who did not ask her how the exams went.

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Following the success of the performance, which was initially intended to be unique, other cities also applied. The second performance goes into a spin, which makes the spectators laugh, but Etienne is furious at the lack of professionalism. Everything will go relatively well thereafter, even if before a performance, the inmates went out (without permission) to go to the hairdresser
to have their hair dyed; fortunately, only Etienne was aware of it. Kamel had the joy of seeing his son attend the last performance.

Kamel (Sofian Khammes) playing Vladlmir in the play

The detainees are in conflict with the head of detention, because the prison authorities confiscate most of the gifts well-wishers give them at the end of the performances. After the last
performance, it escalates and the inmates even go to party completely naked in front of the prison after departing from the bus.

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The film’s climax takes place when the Théâtre de l’Odéon, Paris’ premiere theatre, for a performance. As a result of recent disruptive behaviors, inmates are locked up in isolation. But
Etienne once again manages to persuade the prison  administration. At the Théâtre de l’Odéon, we find in particular in the public, the director of the prison, Nina (for the first time), as well as the judge. While the actors are called, no one comes, and Etienne cannot find them. He comes to announce to the public that the actors are gone, referring to the play (we are expecting them, but they do not come), and asks the spectators to go home. Then he changes his mind, and tells his story.

Patrick (David Ayala) plays Pozzo in Waiting for Godot

Did such a thing actually happen to an aging French stage director working with a troupe of prison inmates? Yes, and the production of Waiting for Godot was a huge success that toured in France and neighboring countries. The actual inmates in the cast did disappear from the theatre at one production in Germany and that is the basis of this story.

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