Gaetano Cardozo’s review published on Letterboxd:
Beyond a prison escape film, beyond a simple drama, beyond entertainment, beyond a film. Papillon is one of the biggest and strongest love letters to the human spirit, it destroyed me to pieces and put me back together several times, from any point of view you see it this is one of the most powerful films ever created, definitely one of the most underrated films of all time, let alone of 1973.
From a narrative point of view, seeing the plot, the characters and the development, Papillon is excellent. Dalton Trumbo's screenplay is filled with poignant dialogue and an entertaining plot that, thanks to Franklin J. Schaffner's direction makes the 151-minute long runtime fly by. Characters meet, they make plans, one gets to see their hopes and regrets and most importantly one feels for the characters, Papillon is a determined character and there's a point in the film where the viewer shares his determination because of how much we've got to know him, we've suffered with him and we see how the penal system in French Guinea keeps him from achieving his objective: freedom. And this is one of the points where (at least talking from my personal experience with the film) Papillon transcends itself, what is freedom? Is anyone free? Aren't we all seeking for freedom, a freedom we can't even describe and whose concept may differ from each person? Papillon's struggle in prison reflects the struggle it is to exist for anyone, and his search for freedom reflects everyone's search for improvement, be it in an emotional, physical, spiritual, economical or mental way. There will be obstacles in the way, always, one may feel helpless once one faces those obstacles but if there's one thing Papillon teaches, and without ever being preachy, is that no matter how helpless the conditions may be, hope should never be lost. Does that sound familiar to you? Maybe from a 1994 film that happens to be the highest rated film on IMDB? That's right. Papillon did it before (and better than) The Shawshank Redemption; the latter does actually get preachy and its hopeful final message is too on the nose, but we tend to ignore this because of the cathartic and inspiring effect the film has on most of its viewers (myself included) and just let inspiration and emotion hit in. Papillon's impact was 100 times stronger than Shawshank's and it never states in an obvious manner the message of hope it has, it's one of the films that best uses the concept of showing instead of telling, there are sequences that contain little to no dialogue and allow the viewer to let the emotions brew and eventually explode in more than one ocassion where the emotion achieved is so big that one doesn't know if one should laugh or cry, this film has been one of the most impactful I've ever seen, and quite possibly the most inspiring, and here I'm only covering the surface level which is the effect the narrative had on me, all the performances, deeper themes and technical aspects are equally impactful and grand and left me shaking once the film ended, it was a film where that made me feel a lot, I didn't do justice to what this film already means to me with what I've written about it so far but honestly describing an emotion as strong as the one a great film creates on you is borderline impossible. Now if that feeling without even thinking or analyzing was already strong now it keeps getting stronger and stronger the more I think about this film and all of its layers, I'm reaching the point where I'm almost crying while writing this review, Papillon is a film that exists to remind me of how powerful cinema can be and how through simple things such as camera angles and placements a cathartic can be achieved on the viewer... When the main characters are in prison most of the time the camera is placed over them, making them look smaller and opressed by the autoritarian guards and the prison warden all their dehumanizing methods of "reforming" which are just physical and psychological torture methods they like to apply to the prisoners to the point they dehumanize them and degrade them to a level even lower to the one animals are in- animals are often focused many times on the same level as the prisoners or being treated similarly: we see during the first minutes of the film a prisoner fainting due to the heat the insufferable sun of the caribbean produces, and then they cut to a different angle of the events where we see a pig faint for the same reasons- I've said the following in many of my previous reviews (first that comes to mind is the one I wrote for Saló: or the 120 Days of Sodom) and it is how those who apply dehumanizing methods to punish and/or torture others dehumanize themselves just as much as those they punish, maybe not physically but on a spiritual level, they end up being seen as brutes who don't give a flying for fuck for human decency, but then again, many of those they punish are murderers and criminals, which leads to an endless and vicious circle of hatred for one another which ends up just being another prison within the prison they're already in. The difference between all those murderers and Papillon is that Papillon was falsely accused of something he didn't do and was receiving an undeserved punishment which is what ignited his desire to escape, to claim back that freedom that was taken away from him. But there's also a line of dialogue during the very first minutes of the film Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) said and that is that "no one is innocent" (Melville's Le Cercle Rouge once again influencing every film out there) and later on during the film during one of the best sequences which one of a surreal and symbolic nature where while being in solitary confinement Papillon starts to think about his life choices he has a dream where he faces a trial in middle of a desert and is found guilty of "wasting his life", he feels guilty of not being good enough, good enough for whatever his initial purpose in life was, he felt guilty of taken a bad decision that eventually led to his current state, don't we all ever feel guilty of things like this? sometimes one may feel one's not good enough, sometimes we may want to punch ourselves for that stupid decision we took and we think that if we did something different things might have been better, sometimes we just imprison ourselves into situations and/or states where we just feel miserable and it seems there's no escapatory, but seeing Papillon we are thaught that no matter how helpless the situation as long as we don't make it hopeless we may find a light in the impenetrable darkness, which brings me back to the initial point about the cinematography and the camera placements, and that is that despite how helpless the landscape may look, we see color drained from everything and a sense of dread around every corner, and the camera angles and the frames opressing and enclosing the characters, there's always a shot that eventually comes by where they own the frame, and they see an ocean full of life and a reverberating nature that awaits for them, and we see the camera placed below their level, showing how despite being opressed and in a helpless landscape they still have the control of keeping things hopeful, as long as you have hope, and can keep that hope alive, and as long as you work and fight for that, that freedom you hope for there's a chance you'll get it, there's a chance you'll improve, and if you keep hoping and you keep fighting that hope, that dream may come true, you may have to wait a long, long time for it, you may have to wait on for so long that those who shared your dreams and hope may drop those dreams and hopes, but even if it is by yourself if you can keep on dreaming, and hoping and fighting there will always be the chance you make it, this applies for everything in life, and I'm glad I saw Papillon and that it inspired me as much as it did, a film I will revisit whenever I'm feeling down and also whenever I'm feeling good, a film that no matter what will always be there for me and that will always remind me of how one can achieve what one wants no matter how unreachable that may seem, Steve McQueen embodies the strength of human spirit in his best role which also holds a touch of melancholy he mastered during the 70s (you may spot this melancholy in The Getaway, which came out one year prior to this one), and here he peaks, he delivers one of the best performances not only of 1973, but also the 70s, and of all time, you can see all the suffering he goes through, you can see how decimated he gets to be by the dehumanizing conditions he is put on, you can see that in his look, in his eyes, in the way he moves, in the way the camera captures him, in everything, but you can also see his determination, and that's what makes of that such a multilayered and three dimensional performance, you can see how he is tormented by his past and how he is always trying to kill his inner demons so that he can fully focus on his objective, and the film's biggest conflict is on how while he is trying to kill his inner demons these are fed by his surroundings, but he always finds a bit of hope in his surroundings in characters who share his hopes and help him in his attempt to achieve freedom, sometimes he is betrayed, sometimes he is double crossed, the past has taught him to trust nobody, but his condition forces him to trust anyone, which is another great conflict presented during the film, he is left with no option but to trust and hope, and if he is betrayed he will have to go all the way back to the beginning, he could give up and accept his fate, but he keeps deciding to try and change his fate, no matter how helpless he is, but he will never lose hope, never, that's the film's biggest lesson, and it is deeply touching, the more I analyze it and the more I think about this film and the more I see how it reaches its final message from different directions the more I fall in love with it and the more I realize it is one of the greatest films ever made and one of my new favorite films, I know I've been throwing the words "masterpiece" and "one of the best films of all time" recently (I can't be blamed though, been watching some great films lately, what do you want me to do?) but with this film I truly mean it with every single bit of my heart, soul and body, Papillon is one of the best films I've ever seen, it is one of my favorite films, it is one of the most special films I've ever seen, it is one of the most emotional and impactful films I've ever got witness and feel, and I am positive it is the most beautiful and grandest ode to the human spirit I've seen in my 17 years of lifetime, a complete an absolute masterpiece that I will NEVER forget.