Friday, February 16, 2007

Indigènes / (Days of Glory) - Movie Review

Indigènes / Days of Glory 2006

While the gals from Pedro Almodóvar’s “Volver were busy accepting their collective Best Actress honors at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the boys from “Indigènes / Days of Glory” strolled off with the Best Actor award for their roles as brave North African soldiers. They are certainly to be commended for their fine work, and one cannot doubt the sincerity behind this wartime docudrama . . . and yet. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Following the Nazi occupation of France and during the height of the African campaign, the Free French Forces enlisted North Africans who had their own contentious history with La France to fight against the Nazis. Moroccans, Algerians and Berber tribesman became part of the fighting forces united against fascism, but divided as “others” from the Allies’ perspective. Remember, this was a time before Paul Haggis taught the world how to love everybody regardless of race, creed or color. Cough, cough.

Helmed by the Franco-Algerian director, Rachid Bouchareb, “Indigènes” overcomes moments of clichéd “Band of Brothers” heroics by the sheer novelty of its historical basis. The treatment of North African “Natives” (A far more faithful and accurate translation of the title than the ridiculously generic military sounding “Days of Glory”) by their Colonialists leaders is a shameful note in the battle against the Axis powers. This film, which has recently been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, inspired its own historical footnote by altering the laws in France that dealt with military pensions for African WW II vets. Hey, it took the U.S. government almost fifty years before they even considered reparations to Japanese-Americans for locking them up in concentration camps, cut the French some slack.

It certainly didn’t help matters that the emancipation of Algeria from France, which inspired a truly classic film, “The Battle of Algiers”, reflected years of bitterness and rancor between the two nations. A notion that has also been explored in such wonderful films as André Téchiné’s “Wild Reeds and helped form the backbone to the layers of mystery exhumed in Michael Haneke’s superb thriller “Caché”.

But back to the film at hand. There are many things to enjoy (?) in this bloody tale of heroism and prejudice. First, the performances by the Franco-Arab cast. Jamel Debbouze, well known to international audiences for his fine comic turn in “Amélie” stars as Saïd Otmari, a physically scarred and intellectually naïve grunt who strives to please in the hopes of finding a land to call home.

Samy Naceri and Assaad Bouab portray Berber brothers who enlist for the money and the possible spoils of war.

Roschdy Zem appears as Messaoud, a deadshot marksman who falls head over heels in love with the image of France, embodied in the form of one grateful young village lass.

Sami Bouajila heads the troop as Abdelkader, a dedicated soldier who longs for the recognition of his superiors, only to encounter injustice at every turn.

As the Sergeant in charge of the motley band of natives, Bernard Blancan’s Sergent Roger Martinez appears to be the long distance type of military man who scorns his troop of “others”. Appears, being the key word.

And speaking of appearances, Mathieu Simonet of the sparkling eyes and dreamy countenance is seen briefly as Caporal Leroux. Far too briefly in our opinion for this second generation dreamboat! We will always cherish his equally handsome father Jaques Perrin’s turns in two of our favorite film fantasies: Jaques Demy’s “Les demoiselles de Rochefort and “Peau d’âne”!

While “Indigènes” offers nothing new in structure or tone to the WWII film catalogue, its central conceit is clearly one of “protest film”. It longs to instruct and inform its audiences to the injustices delivered to the fighting men from North African who laid their lives down in the name of a free world. And for that, it is difficult to criticize, much less dismiss. While we can respect films like “Saving Private Ryan” for their technical artistry, it too fell prey to a rehashed storyline far too dependent on war film clichés.

And while some have raised legitimate questions as to the moral hypocrisy of the French government in forgetting their African brothers – we must counter with the reality that no person of color was treated fairly during the second World War, whether they be solider or citizen. Segregation and institutionalized bigotry went hand in hand with penciled on stockings and the Andrews Sisters. It certainly doesn’t help matters that several survivors of the Italian campaigns claim the North African soldiers were infamous for systematically raping and pillaging their way through Nazi-free villages. Which of course recalls the legendary scene in Vittorio De Sica’sTwo Women” where Sophia Loren in her Oscar winning role attempts unsuccessfully to save her teenaged daughter from such a fate. “Indigènes” skims over the more unpleasant aspects of solidierly misconduct with one or two lines that basically amount to: "Shame, shame, don't steal from the church and don't rape the white women."

To that we can only add that anybody who thinks wars are won by noble and just soldiers has never heard of My Lai. War is indeed hell. And the better films concerning warfare, such as this year’s double bill by Clint Eastwood take the time to reflect the horrors and injustice, as well as the human beings behind the bloodied fatigues. “Indigènes” has noble intentions, and a first rate cast of actors who hit their marks and bravely attempt to see past the politics. It is only in the fairly pedestrian direction by Rachid Bouchareb that the film slacks off. While we didn’t expect a poetic masterpiece or visionary sense of style, we did hope that the film would attempt a bit more than it does.

Still, what often helps make film such a powerful medium is the ability to shed light on a forgotten bit of history that deserves mention. And certainly one would have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by the sacrifices depicted. We just wish that the filmmakers had been braver in their examination and a tad more artistic in their storytelling. But ultimately, that does not seem to be their goal. The bravery of the North African soldiers, lost to history is their story. Most moviegoers would rather commit Hara-Kari than actually read a detailed account on the totality of man’s inhumanity to mankind. “Indigènes” sets out to do what it intends to do. To reveal a painful episode that deserves questioning. And apparently, it achieved its goal. Not a bad job at that. Bless you all!

Directed by Rachid Bouchareb
Written by Rachid Bouchareb and Olivier Lorelle

Jamel Debbouze as Saïd Otmari
Samy Naceri as Yassir
Roschdy Zem as Messaoud Souni
Sami Bouajila as Abdelkader
Bernard Blancan as Sergent Roger Martinez
Mathieu Simonet as Caporal Leroux
Benoît Giros as Capitaine Durieux
Mélanie Laurent as Margueritte
Antoine Chappey as Le colonel
Assaad Bouab as Larbi
Aurélie Eltvedt as Irène

Cinematography by Patrick Blossier
Film Editing by Yannick Kergoat
Original Music by Armand Amar and Cheb Khaled
Production Design by Dominique Douret
Costume Design by Michèle Richer



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