I remember as if it were yesterday the day that my friend Pablo Mustonen gave me that book. It was the first Christmas after Cineasta Radio was born and at a Christmas gathering he gave me “The 1,001 films you have to see before you die.” Obligatory reference would from that moment be Steven Schneider’s book. Days later, among its pages, I came across Marcel Pagnol’s The Baker’s Wife. Always revered, Pagnol is one of those authors who I could not find, much less could I get any of his films. The moment had come, and I could finally see the film and cross it off the long list that has become a kind of obsession.
Like all art forms, cinema also faces its harshest critic, time. Judging with other codes and from a perspective that takes us out of the exact context of the creation of any artistic piece, allows us to weigh its value as a transcendental work. In the case of The Baker’s Wife, the calendar already marks 83 years and continues to be shown as a fresh film. Now we can say that it was a daring proposal for 1938.
Our Daily Bread
A small town in the south of France experiences the joy of welcoming its new baker. Aimable Castanier (Raimu) and his young wife Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc) have arrived to return to this village the blessing of having fresh baked bread every day. We see the entire community rush to test that first batch of Aimable’s oven, everyone crowding waiting for the glorious moment. All the central figures of the town attend the appointment: the priest, the professor, and a prosperous marquis. In that rendez-vous, the director introduces us to each of the characters. Armed with quick dialogues, they all open the way and define their structure. A few minutes are enough to understand the intentions of each one, simple actions allow us to see the dramatic lines that each one must follow.
Jean Giono’s novel Jean le Bleu serves as the basis for the screenplay for The Baker’s Wife. Pagnol takes advantage of every line in the mouth of his characters to overflow with social, political, and religious criticism. A pitched battle breaks out between the village priest and the teacher. In sequences steeped in humor, issues are debated that put faith and science in divided positions. The real genius is shown in every sequence like the one when science must carry religion through marshy waters so that it can fulfill its mission.
The Raimu Show
When the story takes its first twist, Aurérile flees with another man, leaving the newly arrived baker heartbroken and unwilling to work. The people face the tragedy of not having fresh baked bread again and they will have to join forces to solve this new problem. In this act Raimu with his Aimable brings out his full potential and gives us a historic performance. An anecdote that Pagnol himself dictated tells that Orson Welles once referred to Raimu as the best actor of all time. For here the native of Toulon shows why a genius like Welles had such high esteem for him. Not only does he master monologues, but he can change in the blink of an eye from the most comical to the most dramatic cues.
The Baker’s Wife grows and takes advantage of those situations that at first glance seem trivial to transform them into circumstances that give way to a deep character analysis. Few times in the cinema have we seen a closure as perfect as the one delivered by Pagnol by the hand of Raimu and his annihilating final lines.