Once in a while a little gem of a film will hit all the right notes when you least expect it to happen, leaving you the viewer grinning with glee by the time the end credits roll out. Gallants, with its theatrical release in Hong Kong soon, did that for me, and now Hallelujah!, which has been playing for some time already, did it for me this month, in presenting a story so deceptively simple and humourous, had a lot going for it in knowing just how much to bite off and chew.
Directed by Roger Delattre and written by the leading actor Jean-Marie Bigard who takes on the role of Mario, Hallelujah! takes the quintessential fish out of water story, and it's not since Hot Fuzz that I kinda enjoyed this genre since you'd come to expect the formula that usually gets employed, with the reluctant hero being put in a premise against his wishes, and trying to make the best of it, in particular, with the help of the earnest supporting characters who teaches the protagonist a thing or two about humanity, or vice versa.
Bigard's Mario is a jewel thief having served the last day of his 7 year prison sentence, and is about to start a new life except for two ex-colleagues who come knocking on his door to demand a cut of the jewels. A bad-ass himself but knowing that the odds are not against his favour, Mario seeks the help of his brother Patrick (David Strajmayster), a priest who decides that the best way to help Mario will be to disguise him as a fellow member of the church, and send him to a small town to hide. Little does he know that his contact and fellow brethren had kicked the bucket, and Mario had no choice but to pick up the mantle and become the beacon of hope to the town folks, where hilarity is just about every turn of the corner.
I will not deny that I had to rely on the English subtitles to get me through this film given my lack of mastery of the French language, and certainly in this case there will be a number of jokes that will get lost in translation. But for what it's worth, this subtitled version managed to get me in stitches, in particular Jean-Marie Bigard's straight faced performance as the no-nonsense gangster who found himself stuck knee deep in helping the simple town folks who see him as their messiah. On one hand he can't wait to shrug them off so that he can get his hands on his stolen jewels, and on the other, slowly but surely, find himself being endeared to the rich supporting characters that pepper the scenes, in particular with the police led by Jean Dell's Le Capitaine de Gendarmerie.
On the other hand, there's the story of Mario's brother Patrick, who is tasked with the responsibility of helping Mario retrieve the stolen treasure, and as a religious man we see him slowly degenerate into a life of vice, in stark contrast to Mario who had, in his limited capacity tricking everyone of his theology expertise. Before Patrick's scene got too over the top, there's a superb performance and premise during a protracted negotiation that will surely leave you laughing out loud. For Patrick, it's the exploration on the corruption and temptation that money can bring.
But it's not all just laughter without substance, as the film does have its very clear message which came as the final sub plot of the film. Some may find it being shoved down one's throat, but I thought it's nevertheless a critical reminder of the times we live in, which calls for the message of love, peace and tolerance despite differences in religious beliefs, since almost all preaches the same positive aspects on how to lead one's life to fulfillment, with responsibility and acceptance toward fellow human being. It's an ideal that the film tries to spell out to the audience, that it's nothing impossible once we get past our bigoted views, and see beyond surface differences to realize we'll all the same deep down, holding onto similar hopes and dreams.
If this was to be remade, I can see how Hollywood would adapt this, and Robert De Niro will fit in the role of Mario easily. In fact, if there's a Japanese version of it, Beat Takeshi will also not be far off in his ability to translate this role of a gangster being forced by circumstances to lead a life filled with offbeat comedy. Hallelujah! earns the distinct honour in being one of the films that is likely to end up in my shortlist of favourite films of the year. With great performances all round and a story with its pacing kept tight, it's highly recommended, so do catch this on the big screen while you can before it disappears for good!