In 1931 Paris, Henri Charrière (nicknamed ‘Papillon’, or ‘Pappy’ because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest), makes his living as a criminal, stealing jewelry and the like. During an evening of debauchery, Pappy (Charlie Hunnum) witnesses some of the criminals he works under beating a man. The next morning, police arrive at his door, but not for what you may think. He’s being charged with the murder of the man he saw being beaten the night prior.
Quickly, we see Pappy sentenced to life in prison for murder. Framed. He tells his girlfriend, who wanted to settled down with him, to forget about him all together.
This begins one man’s autobiographical nightmare. Charrière published his autobiography entitled Papillon in 1969. In 1973, the year of his death, a movie was created based on his autobiography. Nearly forty-five years later, we’re given this raw and dark remake.
Papillon and his fellow inmates became property of a penal colony in French Gyana. They were told that France had disowned them. It was for the greater good. For French expansion.
The living conditions they forced these men to endure were inhumane and disgusting. They slept on concrete slabs with their feet shackled. They relieved themselves in buckets. They were bitten by bats during the night.
It took no time for Pappy to meet his sidekick, of sorts, Louis Dega (Rami Malek), a rich counterfeit who was in the middle of an appeal and didn’t think he’d be there for very long.
Dega’s case attracted attention from the media, and it was obvious that numerous inmates would be out to get him. It was assumed that he kept money in his gut (which was correct) and everyone wanted to steal from him.
Pappy saw Dega’s situation as an opportunity. Immediately plotting an escape from the penal colony, he offered to physically protect Dega in exchange for money to use in his escape plan. Dega declined, until a man was murdered directly beside him. He quickly reconsidered Pappy’s offer for safety.
Due to Dega’s infamy, he and Pappy were forced to endure one of the toughest work assignments available, essentially moving large boulders in the sweltering heat all day. Although this provided Pappy an opportunity to make a deal with a local sailor for an escape attempt.
Over the next few days, Dega is subjected to numerous threats and attacks that Pappy protects him from. Dega realizes that he’ll be dead before his appeal and has no choice but to escape with Pappy to save his life.
The men are forced to witness an execution via guillotine of a fellow inmate, and are told, “Keeping you is no benefit. Destroying you is no loss.” Pappy and Dega are forced to remove the body but Dega shuts down and the guards whip him. Pappy intervenes, and attempts to escape alone, only to be recaptured.
As punishment for the attempt, Papillon is placed in solitary confinement and told, “We know it’s not rehabilitation. We do our best to break you.” If you hadn’t grasped the nature of the type of facility they were in by this point in the film, this quote would give a pretty accurate depiction. The guards had absolutely no respect for the prisoners as human beings, and took pleasure in torturing them. They tortured them and worked them literally to death. Sure, these men were criminals. Some of them the lowest of the low. But where should the line be drawn in terms of punishment? Where do human rights come into play?
Many men were carried out of solitary confinement, dead from the conditions. Not many could survive the torture. Throughout this film, Papillon is a constant reminder of how you can will yourself to continue to endure despite the conditions that are force upon you. It’s incredible what we can do with the right mindset.
Pappy and Dega continue their venture to escape the penal colony. It’s clear that Pappy and Dega’s relationship goes beyond a business deal. They are now comrades who are loyal to each other until the end. Their shared experiences bring them closer than ever. They seem to be the only source of trust and reliability for one another.
Fast forward to 1969 where Papillon is on a plane as an old man. His home is Venezuala now and he has a wife, who convinced him to write about his experience. He was returning to France as he felt it was important for his memoir to be published there.
In 1970, it was decreed that Henri Charrière could return to France.
As a whole, although slightly long and drawn out, this was a fascinating story. It was a disturbing look at the underbelly of certain correctional systems over the years and in different parts of the world. I can completely appreciate the need to expose all detail. This film raises a question that is still relevant in today’s society, that is, is prison an appropriate form of rehabilitation for wrongdoers? In many facilities, people who are imprisoned get released worse off then when they went in. They are often not provided with appropriate education or rehabilitation to truly assist them in change and reintegration into the general population. Out of fear for their lives, some engage in further criminal activity simply to survive threats from fellow inmates. Although we have come a long way from facilities like we see in this film, I think we still have a long way to go in fully and effectively assisting our fellow people who have committed wrong-doings.