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The French filmmaker and writer Marcel Pagnol died in 1974 at the age of 79 in Paris, having lived through one of the most morally destabilizing periods in history. He watched as two world wars devastated his country; he witnessed the permanent loss of the rural way of life in France through industrialization; he saw the fragmentation of French society and the impending collapse of the kinds of communities that had defined human existence in the West for hundreds of years. Unlike many artists of his era, Pagnol resisted both despair and moral nihilism. Though his work is often bitterly painful, probing mercilessly the human capacity for evil, his stories do not take place in a moral vacuum. Instead, they are shot through with a simple reliance on ancient creeds for moral guidance. The two novels Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (collectively called L’eau des Collines) offer hope that restoration of community is possible, but only if we live out Christ’s second commandment “Love thy neighbor.” Even in its darkest moments, Pagnol’s work affirms that as we renew charitable relationships with those nearest to us, we can participate in bringing peace and justice to our communities.
In a reversal of the usual pattern, Pagnol adapted the pair of novels (published in 1963) from his own 1952 film, Manon des Sources. L’eau des Collines takes place in the 1920s in a tiny town, Les Bastides Blanche, just a few miles from Marseilles on the arid and mountainous Mediterranean coast of Provence. Among the townspeople of Les Bastides—mostly farmers, a priest, a baker (those staples of French society)—flourishes a sharp suspicion of outsiders. In particular the town cherishes a centuries-old hatred for people from Crespin, the next town over.
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Cesar Soubeyran (called the Papet) and his nephew Ugolin are the last surviving...
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