My friend Bob introduced me to a 1991 film Isabelle Eberhardt. It is kind of like “Isabelle of Arabia.” It tells the story of the real life title character and the end of her life as a journalist and advocate for the people of Algeria during the French occupation at the beginning of the 20th century. Eberhardt was an amazing woman. Her mother was an aristocrat and her father was the older children’s tutor. By the time the film starts, Eberhardt has long been a convert to Islam and most of the time after that involves her fighting with the French occupation forces.
Fundamentally, the film is about the disintegration of innocence. At the beginning of the film, her father tells her, “Never lose your innocence.” But it isn’t like Eberhadrt ever compromises hers ideals. It is just that self-knowledge is the opposite of innocence. And by the end of her short life (she died at 27), Eberhardt seems more resigned to the tragedy that is unfolding in Algeria than anything else.
Still, the film is not a downer. Eberhardt maintains her plucky exterior throughout, even as she seems to be dying on the inside. She is the kind of person who we all wish we would be in that situation but know that we would not. So if you are the kind of person who thinks that only results matter, then the film is ultimately depressing—even though Eberhardt does win important battles. But if you think that the struggle is what matters—what makes us human beings—then the film is inspiring. I am in the latter camp and I just ordered a book of her writing.
The production of the film is interesting. For this kind of film, it was made for almost nothing: a couple million dollars. And it shows. It looks like it was shot on 16 mm (maybe Super-16). It doesn’t look like they had more than a basic Lowel lighting kit for any of the indoor shoots. But what the production lacked in equipment, they made up for in personnel. The camera work and direction, for example, are all great. The art department did a good job of using locations. And the acting is without exception fantastic. The film doesn’t bother with accents, which may bother some. I don’t see the problem myself. The actors squeeze every drop of drama from every scene.
I do have a bit of a problem with the screenplay. As it stands, it is just fine. My problem is with the decision to dramatize the last 5 years of Eberhardt’s life. As a result of this, it is necessarily episodic. Of the other hand, I don’t see how the arc of her life could be shown. A more entertaining film could have been made by focusing on a full blown war she prevented. But it wouldn’t have told us much about her. But there is definitely room to make other films about this fascinating woman.
The film ends with Eberhardt’s death due to a flash flood that destroys her home. Right before the walls crumble, she says, “I want to live!” It is a movie cliche, of course. But in the context of her life, it is a fitting epithet of her. Because there is little doubt that in her 27 years, she lived a great deal more than those of us pushing twice that age.
The film does not appear to be available on DVD or even VHS. But it is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.