Leolo (1992): Lauzon’s Tale of Childhood

Childhood and coming of age are two universal issues that every culture is concerned with. They also make perennial themes for the movies, as is evidenced by the fact that every national cinema has produced great films about growing up. Take, for example, Francois Truffaut’s first feature, “The 400 Blows,” Hector Babenco’s “Pixote,” the Taviani brothers’ “Padre Padrone,” George Stevens’ “Shane,” and last year’s beautiful but underestimated “The Man in the Moon.”

At their best, these movies capture poetically the unique joys and terrors of childhood, the fear of maturity and adulthood, which represent for childen a world of uncertainty and boredom.

The French-Canadian film, “Leolo,” which opened the 1992 Toronto Festival of Festival, belongs to this category. Written and directed by Jean-Claude Lauzon, it is an audacious exploration of a 12 year-old boy, who actually believes that his mother was impregnated by a sperm-covered Sicilian tomato!

Director Lauzon described his work as a semi-autobiographical portrait, but he refused to pinpoint which episodes were authentic and which were fictionalized. Some critics were frustrated, but I understood his point: Lauzon wished to create a surreal film, at once raw and stylized, at once particular and universal.

The family life of the young Leolo, marvelously played by Maxime Collin, is so harsh and strange, that one can understand the need of this sensitive boy to take refuge in a world of poems and dreams, a universe in which he is the master of his own fate.

Leolo’s father and mother are obsessed about their children’s bodily functions, specifically bathroom activities. His mother is a huge, strong woman who dominates the household through her cooking. Leolo’s brother starts as a thin weakling, beaten by the neighborhood thug, who evolves into a bodybuilder but remains cowardly. His sisters are not exactly mentally stable and have their own traumas.

Leolo’s bizarre, unconventional family life does not provide material for a melodrama, as could be expected, but for a fearless, most original comedy. The movie also contains romantic and lyrical interludes, depicting Leolo’s dreams of a serene life in Italy with Bianca, a lovely girl who is older than him.

Lauzon’s directorial style emphasizes the raw, immediate elements of his story. There are some similarities between Lauzon’s style and Fellini’s. Like Fellini, Lauzon concentrates on the peculiar and grotesque, the larger-than-life aspects of life, which gives his film a fervent, expressionistic quality.

I could also detect the influence of other Italian directors, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s “The Night of the Shooting Stars.” Like the Tavianis, Lauzon displays a poetic folk imagination, and like the two brothers, he is not a conventional narrative filmmaker. “Leolo” consists of a series of powerful vignettes, linked by the protagonist–and the filmmaker’s creative imagination.

Lauzon has said that the idea for “Leolo” first occurred to him while he was attending the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily. Jealous of Italian culture, he began writing a script whose hero is a Montreal boy who is convinced–and behaves like–he is Italian!

Lauzon is an instinctive, not intellectual, director. “I feel like an antenna,” he said, “I watch television. I walk down the street. I see things. I’m like a painter.” Indeed, “Leolo” exhibits a painterly quality: Episodic in structure, the film is composed of some breathtaking tableaux.