Film review: The Big Hit

French drama Un Triomphe imagines a group of prisoners putting on a performance of Waiting for Godot

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There’s a long history of prisoners performing Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot . As early as 1957 – the play had its world premiere in ’53 – inmates at San Quentin were into it. One, Rick Cluchey, started a theatre company for ex-cons after his sentence ended. In 1985 Sweden, one group used their performance outside the prison as cover for an escape attempt, an event chronicled in the 2005 documentary Les prisonniers de Beckett.

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Emmanuel Courcol’s The Big Hit , originally released as Un Triomphe , sets the story in modern-day France. Out-of-work actor Étienne (Kad Merad) is teaching a theatre course for a group of uninterested inmates, but starts to realize that Godot might be just the thing to motivate them, particularly the Waiting part. As one prisoner notes, they wait for the day to start, and then they wait for it to end.

The plot follows a path familiar to those who have seen any manner of sports-underdogs or come-from-behind tales. Written off by society, guards and wardens, the prisoners start their journey without any confidence in themselves. Only Kamal (Sofian Khammes) seems truly interested in performing, and the jailors are suspicious that perhaps he’s heard of the 1985 escape and is planning a revival. But Étienne has faith, and he pushes them hard, getting notice from audiences, and moving up to bigger and more important venues despite reluctance from the prison staff.

The Big Hit is an unabashed crowd pleaser, winning audience awards in the Slovak Republic and at the Victoria Film Festival in February. One could wish for a little more edge to the story – for instance, we never find out much about the prisoners’ crimes, and the notion that Étienne might be doing this for selfish reasons is a little too pat. But it’s still a fun performance to watch, and you don’t even need to be well versed in Beckett to have a good time.

The Big Hit, already playing in Quebec, opens Dec. 17 in Vancouver; Dec. 19 in Ottawa; Jan. 3 in Vernon, B.C.; and Jan. 6 in Toronto.

3.5 stars out of 5

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