B Roll is a regular feature that digs into the deeper cuts and lesser-known films from legendary directors–the good, the bad, and the awesome. This week, writer Nathanael Hood unearths a curious gem from the great Jean Renoir with the 1935 melodrama Toni .
The Provençal sun burns hot on the backs and necks of the workers gathered from all corners of Europe. In the quarries and work-fields young, tired men swap swigs of wine and stories, their voices tinged by echoes of their homelands: Italy, Spain, Africa, and more. In the evenings the exhausted and sweat-soaked laborers retire to even more exhausted families in dusty houses baked by eons of endless summer. Here among the immigrants is life immemorial: comings and goings; fallings in and out of love, in and out of passion; birthings and dyings in near equal measure. There may be characters in Jean Renoir’s Toni (1935), but here is a film first and foremost about a time and mode of life between two world wars when a man’s home country was “wherever I can earn enough to eat.”
Toni ostensibly revolves around a doomed romance between two immigrants—the Italian Toni (Charles Blavette) and the Spanish Josefa (Celia Montalván). Despite their passion they fall into loveless marriages with other people, both of which eventually fall apart: Toni’s neglected wife attempting suicide via drowning, Josefa shooting her abusive husband in an act of self-defense. Like a proper melodramatic lover, Toni takes the blame for the murder and is brutally gunned down while Josefa vainly protests his innocence.
But the entire film feels like a string of mundane vignettes. There are no moments of explosive, revelatory passion between lovers. The bulk of Toni and Josefa’s flirtation takes place in an extended sequence where Toni awkwardly removes a wasp stinger from Josefa’s back after picking her a cluster of grapes. Though it takes place over a period of three years, the film lurches forward across huge gaps of time without any warning or indication. Many of the most basic elements of romances are glossed over—we don’t even see their first meeting. The romance progresses with a frank matter-of-factness that veers near flippancy.
Much like with Renoir’s other films, Toni is more preoccupied with the rhythms of everyday life than strict plotting. Even in his more plot–and character–driven films like The Rules of the Game (1939) he utilized a detached voyeurism keyed into the moments between moments, of people dressing and driving, of walking through rooms and down hallways to the sound of silence or meaningless chatter.
Toni is one of Renoir’s most startlingly divergent films with very little of the run-time devoted to any kind of plot. The general misdirection of the plot seems like an embodiment of the languid Provençal countryside which Renoir took great pains to capture via on-location shooting. This, combined with the film’s extensive use of local non-professional actors, made Toni one of the biggest precursors of the Italian neorealist movement (no less than Luchino Visconti served as the assistant director!). But its marrying of a location and a sense of time and space seems more predictive of his later masterpiece The River (1951), a reflective drama following an isolated British family living on the banks of the Ganges in India, than it does anything that came out of Italy in the aftermath of World War Two.
Though beloved and reappraised by such notable critics as Jonathan Rosenbaum, Toni remains an admittedly minor work in Renoir’s canon. Parts of it feel slapped together and the last 15-20 minutes seem like the last reel of a totally different film. Claims that the detached nature of the film was deliberate and intentional feel contrived and forced. But even in its truncated incompletion Toni is a curious gem worthy of rediscovery both for its own artistic merits and its influence on a generation of filmmakers.