Mordecai Richler biopic reopens old Quebec wounds

“(He) wasn’t seen as a Quebecker, because he spent all his time spitting on what Quebec represented,” observes documentary filmmaker Francine Pelletier.
Mordecai Richler The Last of the Wild Jews

Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler enjoyed a 40-year career writing for magazines that, he recalled in his 1998 book of essays Belling the Cat, enabled he and his wife, Florence, “to travel first-class at their expense, undertaking exotic trips we could otherwise ill afford.”

The rub, says Montreal documentary maker Francine Pelletier, is Richler’s journalism, in which he carried on a nasty battle with Quebec’s separatist movement, meant his novels to this day are rarely read by francophone Quebecers.

“He is a great writer, and a great writer of ours. And he wrote about this place,” Pelletier, who directed and co-wrote the documentary with Richler biographer Charles Foran, told Playback Daily.

And the biopic, set to debut on Bravo! on December 19, isn’t likely to spur the late Richler’s novel sales as it reopens old wounds over his portrayal of Quebec nationalism in the 1992 book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, and Richler’s notorious 1991 New Yorker essay.

“He (Richler) wasn’t seen as a Quebecker, because he spent all his time spitting on what Quebec represented,” Pelletier, summing up the view of the French Quebecois, recalled.

Pelletier’s documentary soft-pedals early criticism of Richler as a self-hating Jew as it argues he was part of a visionary group of Jewish artists that included Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Lenny Bruce, and who looked to reshape how the North American Jew, and modern literature itself, was viewed.

“I think one of the reasons he criticized so eloquently – some people would say brutally – when it came to the Jewish community was because he really knew what he was talking about,” the filmmaker said.

But Pelletier takes an opposite tack when it comes to Richler’s infamous criticism of Quebec nationalism.

“He was also very brutal in terms of Quebec nationalists, but in this case, he didn’t quite know what he was talking about,” she argued.

The documentary, which includes talking-head interviews with Richler’s contemporaries, including Margaret Atwood, Ted Kotcheff and Terry Mosher, argues Richler wrongly equated Quebec nationalism with fascism as part of a discussion he was ill-equipped to lead.

“He was away (in Britain) at a crucial time, he was away from 1952 to 1972, and that’s the crucial period in Quebec history, when it reinvents itself, the Quiet Revolution,” Pelletier insists.

“Since he (Richler) didn’t have many inroads into the francophone community because of a cultural/linguistic barrier, he never grasped what happened during those years,” the filmmaker adds.

Pelletier insisted Richler, living in the shadow of the Holocaust, always a displayed a knee-jerk reaction that any nationalism, including Quebec nationalism, amounted to anti-Semitism.

“You just couldn’t speak to him about Quebec nationalism. He just was totally irrational about it,” she said.

Mordecai Richler: The Last of the Wild Jews, produced by indie producer Motsjo Inc, will repeat on Bravo! On December 25.