Doc Talk: Two looks at COVID-19, Louis Malle’s America, Henri Langlois salute

Researchers at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, Boston University School of Medicine, from "Decoding COVID-19."
Researchers at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, Boston University School of Medicine, from "Decoding COVID-19."Stephen McCarthy/Courtesy "NOVA"

Two new PBS documentaries underscore the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic while lucidly explaining what it is and what is being done to stop it.

The beginning of “Inside Italy’s COVID War,” produced by PBS “Frontline” and directed by Sasha Joelle Achilli, looks like a scene from such recent films as “For Sama” (2019) and “The Cave” (2019), documentaries about doctors in Syria combating chaos, death, and desperation during wartime. In mid-March, after a 12-hour shift in a hospital overwhelmed by those sickened by the virus, an exhausted Dr. Francesca Mangiatordi describes the situation. “[There were] 15 people together in the same corridor with just one toilet,” she says. “There is no dignity anymore. We’ve lost the sense of humanity.”


The film follows Mangiatordi as she labors with her colleagues tending as best they can to those stricken by a disease that has no cure and is barely understood. A 30-year-old mother of three confronts the possibility that she will never see her children or husband again. An 18-year-old youth on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma is given little hope of surviving. A 42-year-old man dies. “The next one that tells me it only affects the elderly, I’ll spit in their eye,” Mangiatordi says.

Nor are Mangiatordi and her colleagues immune. More than half the staff has caught he disease, including one of Mangiatordi’s close friends.

Over 30,000 people to date have died in the pandemic in Italy. Lockdown measures reduced the spread of the infection, but some worry that the easing of those measures begun in May might result in a resurgence.

Dr. Francesca Mangiatordi in "Inside Italy's COVID War."
Dr. Francesca Mangiatordi in "Inside Italy's COVID War."Credit: Sasha Achilli/FRONTLINE (PBS)

Sarah Holt’s “Decoding COVID-19,” produced by the PBS “Nova” series, takes a broad but personal approach in its report about the pandemic. It begins in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak first began. Liu Qi, a 21-year-old student, had not given much thought to news about a strange new illness in the city when he came down with flu-like symptoms. They became much worse, and along with hundreds of others he would struggle for life in a hospital. Soon the world would be familiar with the ravages of the disease as scientists struggled to understand it, develop methods of treatment, and work to find a possible cure.


From Wuhan the focus switches to New York, where in February a beloved 72-year-old grandfather falls victim to the disease. With no visitors allowed, the family speaks to him via a speakerphone broadcast through the ICU’s intercom. His grandson’s grief is compounded by guilt; an EMT who works long hours caring for other casualties of the pandemic, he fears he might have brought the contagion home and passed it on to “Pops.”

Holt balances these harrowing personal stories with clear explanations and animated illustrations of the science behind how the virus attacks the body, about how it spreads, what measures can be taken, and the desperate attempts to find a cure. In the midst of an onslaught of misinformation about this ongoing disaster, this film provides facts and clarity.

“Inside Italy’s COVID War” premieres as part PBS’s “Frontline” on May 19 at 10 p.m. and will be available then on YouTube. It will begin streaming on the PBS Video App and at pbs.org/frontline at 7 p.m.

“Decoding COVID-19” can be streamed at pbs.org/nova and in the PBS Video App.


Go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/video/decoding-covid-19 and www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/inside-italys-covid-wa.

A scene from ". . . And the Pursuit of Happiness."
A scene from ". . . And the Pursuit of Happiness."Courtesy Criterion Channel

Malle adjusted

In the late 1970s, Louis Malle (1932-95), already known for films such as “Murmur of the Heart” (1971) and “Lacombe, Lucien” (1974), moved to America, where he would make the controversial “Pretty Baby” (1978) and the Oscar-nominated “Atlantic City” (1980). He also made some documentaries about his adopted country, including the absorbing, perennially relevant “. . . And the Pursuit of Happiness” (1986).

Working in a cinéma-vérité, man-in-the-street style like that of Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s “Le Joli Mai” (1962), Malle travels the country interviewing fellow immigrants about their experiences. He begins with a Romanian exile who swam the Danube to escape his country and who is now walking around the entire 3,200-mile border of Texas. Asked why, he says, “For love and respect for my country. This is my home now.”

Other interviewees express varying levels of satisfaction, from the woman in New York City’s Little Italy who, when asked where she’s from, exuberantly says, “What’s the difference? I’m here now!” to General Jose Somoza, brother of the late, former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. Exiled here after the Sandinistas took over the country, the general sullenly watches soap operas and tends the garden at his luxurious home.

Only when Malle reaches the Mexican border does the positive mood darken. It is a familiar scene: hundreds of desperate people seeking refuge, frustrated border guards catching those illegally crossing, and a growing resentment and anger among Americans fearing an alien invasion.


“… And the Pursuit of Happiness” is available as part of the Criterion Channel’s “The Documentaries of Louis Malle” series.

Go to www.criterionchannel.com/the-documentaries-of-louis-malle.

Henri Langlois
Henri LangloisCourtesy Criterion Channel

Archival activism

A reality-TV-show host may have become president of the United States in 2016, but in 1968 a lowly film archivist sparked a revolution in France. When the French government tried to close down the Cinémathèque Française, an archive of 50,000 films founded by the beloved Henri Langlois, throngs took to the streets in protest, including filmmakers and actors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Catherine Deneuve. Some were beaten by the police for their troubles, but this spontaneous outbreak of support for the legendary cinephile compelled his reinstatement and sparked the mass demonstrations and strikes in May of that year which almost overthrew the government of Charles de Gaulle.

In “Langlois," the streets of Paris are quieter a couple of years later as the genial, disheveled Langlois takes filmmakers Roberto Guerra and Eila Hershon on a tour of his favorite places, including the cinémathèque itself. Guerra and Hershon also interview an astonishing assortment of film people paying tribute to Langlois, ranging from Lillian Gish (seen in a clip from D.W. Griffith’s 1913 silent “The Battle of Elderbush Gulch”) to Andy Warhol superstar Viva to auteur Jean Renoir.

One of the most memorable interviews is with Simone Signoret, recalling how she first saw Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” (1925) secretly in Langlois’s mother’s tiny dining room during the Nazi occupation at a time when showing Soviet films was severely punished. Another highlight is legendary experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger saying that he believes that Langlois is a descendant, or maybe an avatar, of pharaohs going back to ancient Egypt and even Atlantis. We are lucky, Anger says, that he has come back as the High Priest of Cinema to instruct us.


Where is our Henri Langlois for today?

“Langlois” can be streamed on the Criterion Channel.

Go to www.criterionchannel.com.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.