A fresh take on the classic “Waiting for Godot”—and living someone else’s life through acting
The Big Hit (orig. Un triomphe) stars Kad Merad, a César Award-winning comedic actor also noted for reciting the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the military parade held on the Place de la Concorde for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s inauguration. Merad gives a brilliant rendition of Etienne, an actor in professional doldrums who is also dealing with the collapse of his family. The story begins with Etienne, facing headwinds in his own life, visits a prison to lead an acting workshop intended to help rehabilitate the inmates.
The story is based on an actual acting workshop that was conducted as part of a rehabilitation program for Swedish prisoners and the surprising events that followed, with the setting moved to France. Five prisoners without any acting experience are asked to perform Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” considered perhaps the most important English-language play of the twentieth century, and through the experience of examining the difficult and absurd text and substituting their own lives for those of others, challenged to consider the meaning of life. The expectation was that making the prisoners act out different personalities, utter the words of others, and act like people different from themselves would help them look objectively at the deeds and words that led them to their current predicament.
In an interview, the film’s director Emmanuel Courcol spoke of how “in Europe, theater is viewed not only in terms of art, but also as a ‘medium’—one that can teach you about life and serve as a means and material for social rehabilitation.”
In the film, not only do the prisoners learn and grow, but by watching them progress, Etienne and the play’s audiences also learn and begin to reflect on their own lives. In this way, the story provides a glimpse of the endless interconnected growth of society as a whole.
In terms of the necessity of culture and art for society, I was reminded of Susan Sontag directing a performance of “Waiting for Godot” during the Bosnian Civil War. What was the point of staging a nonsensical play while people were struggling to survive without sufficient electricity or food?
For Courcol, the answer lies in culture as “the last bastion.” He continues: “During the Syrian Civil War, young people in Aleppo tried to keep their culture alive by building an underground library. Culture is indispensable for human beings, and in prisons as well as in other disadvantaged environments, culture and art can function as devices for self-improvement.”
Emmanuel Courcol ©Unifrance
Courcol and screenwriter Thierry de Carbonnières both have acting backgrounds and are former classmates from theater school as well as good friends. In making The Big Hit, they spoke with the cultural coordinator of the Meaux penitentiary in France and watched a version of the Iliad performed by prisoners at the Théâtre Paris-Villette, acquiring a sense of real-life prison rehabilitation programs to ensure authenticity throughout the script, which they put together little by little.
It was interesting to see the suspended, approximate narrative of a future that will never come from “Waiting for Godot” upturned and repivoted to challenge our safe real-world existence—and it all being a true story is surprising indeed.
Translated by Ilmari Saarinen
Written and directed: Emmanuel Courcol
Starring: Kad Merad
Support: Embassy of France in Japan＋Institut français Japan