Cinema: Smotherhood

  • Share
  • Read Later

"A boy's best friend is his mother." In pre-Freudian times, that sentiment was a shibboleth; it even served as the title of a straight-faced song. But as the principle of a 1971 film? Surely Scenarist-Director Jules Dassin jests. Or does he?

Promise at Dawn, based on Romain Gary's dutiful autobiography, takes little Romain from his boyhood in Russia to his early manhood in Paris. Beside him at every step is Mama (Melina Mercouri), who could give Sophie Portnoy lessons in classic and popular momism. Denied recognition as an actress, she seeks vicarious glory through her child. Mama forces her son to take violin lessons that he might be another Heifetz, ballet lessons that he might be Nijinsky reincarnate, French lessons that he might be a future ambassador. The woman's compulsion is infinite; when her son enlists in the air force, she manages to communicate with him after her death by arranging to have 250 posthumous letters sent to him weekly at the front.

As the hero, Assaf Dayan (Moshe's son) is called upon only to look virile, admittedly a difficult assignment given such smotherhood. As Mama, Melina Mercouri (Mrs. Dassin offscreen) has moments of solar intensity coupled with an absolute lack of vanity. When the script calls for her finally to be ill and old, she permits the makeup man to do his worst and appears pitiable indeed. In its own way, her vital, uninhibited performance is mere makeup, covering the scenario's merchandised nostalgia. There is, of course, the melancholy possibility that the Dassins wished to construct a burlesque. Sadder still, they probably imagine that they have fashioned a eulogy.

Stefan Kanfer