about the writer
Josep Torrell is a critic of cinema.
He writes for Mientras tanto, El viejo topo,
and other publications.
Barthélemy Amengual Has
By Josep Torrell
Film critic and researcher Barthélemy Amengual died
on Friday, August 17, 2005, in Valence, in the French region of Rhône-Alpes,
half way between Lyon and Marseille. He was born in Algeria on October
12, 1919, to a poor family of Spanish immigrants. He discovered films
at the age of six, and was captivated by this new form of storytelling.
He looked at the world from the viewpoint of films – an inclination
that he would never leave behind – and witnessed the birth of the
careers of René Clair, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Sergei M. Eisenstein,
and Alexander Dovzhenko. He studied to become a teacher, and after the
war he started writing on films for the newspaper Alger Républicain.
He became increasingly known thanks to his voluntary work at the Ciné Club
d'Alger and in the communal associations that bloomed in the early post-war
period, such as Travail et Culture. His first short publications
(eleven in total) appeared between 1951 and 1954 in Algeria, and are
virtually unknown to French and world critics. However, they already
dealt with those names that he would always remain so close to, namely
A firm supporter of Algeria's independence, he felt close
to the Algerian Communist Party. After the revolution, Amengual kept
on teaching in Algeria until 1968, when he and his wife retired to Valence.
He later taught at the universities of Trois Rivières and Montréal
in Québec, and at the Institut Lumière in Lyon.
His work as a teacher allowed him to write about cinema
without getting paid for it (almost ever). In nearly 60 years of critical
practice, his only guides were passion and knowledge. Though he was never
dogmatic, he was one of those Marxists who had read Marx carefully, and
he remained a Marxist even after society had moved on to the other side.
When he quoted Marx, as a form of homage, he astonished French Communist
Party critics, who would conceal their militancy - and that of Amengual.
What did he feel when millions of people collectively effaced the communist
traces of their own past, and learned to live without a past? Though
perhaps he was too busy working on his new book on Eisenstein or on articles
on Theo Angelopoulos or Miklós Jancsó, truly leftist filmmakers.
Very soon, in the early fifties, the federation of film
clubs allowed him to get in touch with other people who shared his passion
and commitment towards an uncompromising cinema, and with the magazines
that they published. From the age of 30 until his death, Amengual contributed
to almost every French film magazine - and with the expansion of the
Internet in the early 21st century, his texts found a new haven and a
sounding board. For instance, for over 50 years he wrote in Cinéma,
Jeune cinéma, Cahiers de la Cinémathèque, CinémAction, Cahiers
du cinéma, Cinéma d'aujourd'hui, Archives de l'Institut
Jean Vigo, Cinémathèque, Vertigo and, most of all,
in Études cinématographiques and especially Positif (from
number 3, in 1953, until his death), without ever getting paid for a
single article, simply as a contribution to a cultural labor.
His first book was Le petit monde de Pif
le Chien, essai sur un comic français (1955), the first
ever published in French about comic-book narrative. Thanks to Positif 's
Bernard Chardere, he began to publish in the series Premier Plan,
from Lyon. His first monograph was of course S. M. Eisenstein (1962),
followed by Charles Chaplin (1963) and Vsevolod Pudovkin (1968).
At the same time, Paris-based Seghers published several larger monographs: René Clair (1963), G.
W. Pabst (1968), La Feks (1970), and the superb Aleksandr
After these monographs about all the authors he considered
fundamental, his next book was Clefs pour le cinéma (1971),
which he conceived as a book of popularization. It was organized as a
reflection on cinema, at a time when the academic theory in this field
was barely starting (and despite coming so soon after 1968, it did not
have a political approach at all). During the following ten years, he
prepared his extraordinary Que viva Eisenstein! (1981), a
huge volume - 728 pages long, printed in size-8 font - published by Lausanne
(Switzerland)-based L'Age d'Homme. Amengual gathered all his material
and notes on Eisenstein, and although some parts needed to be updated, Que
viva Eisenstein! eventually became a reference book because of
the amount of information it offers and its insightful analysis. For
instance, the section on October, astounding for its analytical
penetration, picks up precisely where the others end.
During the eighties, the surge of video allowed a more
reflexive approach to films. Amengual's two next books were monographs
on films, not directors: Le Cuirassé Potemkine de S. M. Eisenstein: Étude
critique (1992), absolutely necessary to understand the film and
highly recommendable for the mistakes it corrects. The second book, Bande à part
de Jean-Luc Godard (1993), was an attempt to bring out the more
classical aspects of Godard, whereas others only saw what was innovative
and renovating in his work.
In 1997, Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues prepared the anthology Du
réalisme au cinéma, which gathered, in a single
volume of 1008 small-printed pages, most of the essays (quite long)
that he had published in magazines. His papers on Theo Angelopoulos,
Glauber Rocha, Miklós Jancsó, Jean Vigo, Chris Marker,
Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean Eustache are also included. The last text
he published as a book was a recapitulation on Dovzhenko, Le maître
au tournesol (1999), a paper that appeared on the occasion of
the Cinémathèque Française's retrospective of
the Ukrainian filmmaker's work.
Barthélemy Amengual is easy to read but hard to
understand. He is not too keen on those finished phrases that often mislead
the French. His texts are tentative materials that seek to raise issues
rather than establish truths. A Marxist who experienced 1968, he can
easily leave you breathless with a negative judgment within a globally
positive article. Nevertheless, he could also be completely brilliant
and clear when he expounded the most relevant aspects of the classics,
a skill that according to his friends was due to his training as a teacher.
Now he has died. When I found out, I don't know why, but
I broke down and cried. Perhaps because without him it will be harder
to find the way.