This film about the Algerian war shown at the April-May 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival was also currently on view in theaters in France. Director Faucon is a pied noir, born in Morocco in 1958 near the Algerian border. It may attract a US distributor but negative aspects would be the lack of a major star and the understatedness of the action. Based on an autobiographical account, The Betrayal/La trahison is rich in atmosphere with lots of authentic-looking Algerian faces, the omnipresent sound of Algerian Arabic. The film is the stark but convincing chronicle of a French army unit's day to day maneuvers as it crosses a patch of half deserted Algerian countryside in the summer of 1958 ferreting out fellaghas (FLN members). The unit leader is an idealistic, fair but psychically exhausted young lieutenant named Roque (Vincent Martinez)--who represents the author of the source book.
Four of the unit members are harkis, Algerian Arabs serving in the French Army, and it is their dilemma that is the real subject of the film. Roque considers them 100% French citizens, but he cannot guarantee their future or save them from the resentment of the locals who see them as traitors, from their fellow soldiers of white French origin who see them as wogs or from Roque's superiors who see them as saboteurs waiting for their moment to strike. Everyone, including Roque, is fed up with this conflict which has dragged on for so long. Meanwhile the unit is brutalizing locals, burning huts and resettling inhabitants in an increasingly rough manner; the harkis are stoned by Arab boys; and Algerian fellagha suspects are getting tortured and killed by other units or at headquarters.
It is a complex, no-win situation. The locals, afraid of French soldiers, are not talking. If their men are gone, they say they're off seeking work; the unit must assume they've joined the rebels. Some members of the unit are white pieds noirs, Frenchmen with colonial outlook born in the country with inbred prejudices against the Arabs. The four Arab members of the unit, led by Taieb (Ahmed Berrhama), are forced to act as the uneasy liaison between the army and the people. Pressure is on them to defect, as the war wears on they are losing their faith in the justice of the French side, and they necessarily keep to themselves, thus increasing the white French soldiers' suspicion or dislike.
Roque is called in to command HQ and read to from a little notebook that clearly implies the four Arabs in the unit are double agents planning to kill the officers. We've seen no sign of that and neither has Roque, whose relationship with them has been good. The notebook could be a FLN plant to disrupt the unit. But in this volatile situation suspicion is almost as good as guilt. Perhaps the "betrayal" of the French is the hostile atmosphere they themselves have created. Or it is the failure of the harkis to become fully French. In any case, once this notebook emerges, Roque and his non-Arab cohorts can no longer be sure of the four Arab soldiers. Dialogue between the harkis themselves shows their growing discontent but is ambiguous as to their active disloyalty. Roque is curiously non-committal at the end, which seems abrupt and unsatisfying.
The film's strength -- its subtlety and its refusal to become a conventional thriller -- is also its weakness as drama, particularly for an American audience, which might find the meandering plot hard to follow or the concrete history, the realistic depiction of warfare at the village level, impossible to identify with.
This might best be seen together with another SFIFF (as well earlier Toronto Festival) film directly chronicling French history of the period, Alain Tasma's October 17, 1961, which concerns a later whitewashed Paris police massacre of 50 to 200 Algerians demonstrating against a curfew, denied medical care, thrown into the river, 10,000 arrested -- an event referred to in Michael Haneke's Caché. Another related current film also shown at the SFIFF is the historical drama, I Saw Ben Barka Killed, though that may be even less involving for US viewers than The Betrayal.
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