Days of Glory (2006)
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There was no way I would miss a film that French president Chirac cites as the sole reason he immediately rectified the pension plan for indigenous veterans, offering them the promise of equality for the law for the first time. Indigènes is puffed full of political correctness with heavy-handed treatment of salient issues such as racism, inequality and intolerance. But we do not mind, because the film so rigorously establishes a brotherhood feeling with our triumvirate of central characters that we find ourselves completely engrossed in their struggle, rooting for them, laughing with them and often crying because of them.
In the front row for sympathy sits Saïd, Yassir, Messaoud and Abdelkader, all inhabited by capable unknown actors with great emotional transparency. Saïd is a kind of clumsy teddy bear who kisses his mom goodbye in Morocco and immediately botches his way through combat, even choking on the victorious scotch and fumbling with the token victor's cigar when the first battle has been won. These are heartbreakingly real people. Arguably even the hard-edged Sergeant elicits a warm response when he unflinchingly takes on the father-role for the contingent he is rough, harsh, cynical but fair. The male ensemble won the Cannes award for 'Best Actor' earlier this year, which solidifies their collective likability and serve as a mark of the film's warm cast centre. If you want to nitpick, it needs to be said that some moments (such as key death scenes), although tragic, inexplicably lack the propelling poignancy to elicit tears. Why this is I do not know, but it ought to be attributed to the film and not the superb performances.
When the squad of wet puppies make their way across the motherland, they are faced with two disturbances: the internal conflicts that arise in the army when it becomes apparent that North African soldiers are not given the same treatment as native French (no tomatoes, no weekend leaves, no promotions and no glory) and the gruesome reality on the battlefield. The former is captured safely but compellingly through little rants, intense stares and cries of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!" all in the token French political spirit. The latter, however, is Indigènes' true goldmine. No description will do the warfare sequences justice; they need to be seen. Think Call of Duty plugged into the silver screen, with epileptic zooming, fast-paced action, gory reality, humming rocket launchers and one massive sense of immediate danger. It nearly puts Steven Spielberg's warmovie fare to shame.
The cinematography channels one storyline from 'Babel', from the epic aerial shots of the craggy hills and desert-laden plains of Morocco to a juxtaposition of lush French soil. Even the French sheets are a great source of awe for the North African soldiers. Much like 'Babel', the film never shies away from blending equal amounts of Arabic and French into the dialogue, something that reinforces the realism.
Indigènes (2006) is an excellent film with strong performances and a strong, political core. Its flaws, however apparent, are generally marginal. The one thing that jumped out and grabbed me, striking me as below average, was the hammy and inexcusably hackneyed score. When Arabic soldiers are fighting for their lives and bleeding in the process, slapping on a dutiful ethnic score that sings and wails like it means business, the film is just preaching to the choir. If I hear an "epic, ethnic" score in a movie like this again, I will probably go out and kill someone either the Arab who is singing, or the stupid Westerner who thinks mainstream audiences need everything spelled-out for them with this mandatory music inclusion.
Aside from this minor misstep, Indigènes is a worthy merit to France's resumé of films, one that will surely be a frontrunner for the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the Oscars next year. Nevermind that this is an excellent and real film, the competent political notions may just be enough to tip things over in its favour.
8 out of 10
First pictures are beautiful, dialogs and pace slow but efficient.
Second the way the four main characters perform is great (although Naceri is maybe not quite as good as the three others). All moved by different motivations, they have a sole dream: to be a real part of it, a part of the French country they have been fighting for. And they make you believe it. Not only because they fit perfectly into their roles, but also because the suffering and the inequalities they undergo in the war fields of the movie still exist six decades after in their every day life.
"All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others". True it was in Provence or in Alsace, true it is in today's France.
To me this film is more than the French Private Ryan, it is a subtle way to ask: "how much more is it going to take before we can all be on the same boat ?" Go and see it.
In the liberation of France during WWII, North African men were recruited and enlisted in the French army in the fight against the Nazis. Why do they do it? One reason is to escape poverty, and the holding on to the glimmer of hope that they can be accepted, when the war is over, as equals based on their fight for the "motherland". These soldiers, mujahedeens, fought hard, often being in the frontline, but always overlooked when it comes to recognition of basic military welfare and promotions, not that these rewards will cost an arm or a leg, nor are the fighters so hard up for them. All they're asking for was fair treatment, but all they got was discrimination.
Yes, and that is the pain. WWII movies are aplenty, but Days of Glory offered a unique look at the battles by a group of men, for what they deem their motherland and will defend with their blood, and what more, for a land of people who do not see them as equals. Loving someone who does not love you back, sounds familiar? And it's not just love, but sworn allegiance to protect at all costs.
The movie is well paced and straddled moments of action and quiet contemplation with aplomb. Credit must go to the ensemble cast of actors who play the warriors of North Africa, as they battle both the enemies on French soil, as well as enemies of men's heart. They grapple with trying to remain rational in their reason(s) to do what they're doing.
At times, watching this movie made me think about the recent flurry of mails to the press about foreign talent and the issue of citizenship, about NS obligations and whether PRs will flee at the first signs of trouble, or stand shoulder to shoulder with citizens (also, who are those who will flee?) in defending our land. What are the issues of contention, discrimination against, or general presumptions about foreigners here?
Those expecting all out battle scenes might be disappointed. In truth the movie's never about the glorification of gore, violence and war - most scenes aren't really blood splattering to draw in the crowds. Instead, if you'd prefer moments where you can think out loud about the issues presented, then this is for you. However, the final battle would please action fans, as it is well choreographed and executed, and you feel both the pain and victory from a bunch of tightly knit soldiers trying their very best to defend a small town, in a samurai- seven-ish sort of way, also reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan's somehow.
If you've missed this during the French Film Festival, don't fret. I believe this movie is also slated for general release. Keep a look out for it!
Restoring French national honour and developing a post-war consciousness lie at the heart of this film. The importance of Free French forces in the Liberation of France after the military disaster of 1940 is an underlying theme. The action scenes are well-choreographed. During the large-scale assault in Italy the troops appear to be used as disposable meat to locate German positions which can then be pounded with French artillery. The last small-scale encounter in an Alsatian village is one of the best action scenes I have seen. The fear/courage equation which grips a man fighting for his life is shown very effectively.
But this is no simple war movie. War is merely the stage upon which more contemporary and pressing themes are examined i.e. France's relationship to its 3½ million Muslim citizens and their relationship to La Patrie. Most scenes raise issues of identity. "What are we doing here?" is the sceptical question posed by one volunteer who has fought his way to a cold and wintry mountainous region leaving many dead comrades behind him.
The French officers and their Muslim volunteers both wish to believe in the national ideals of 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.' But doubts continue to arise. "When I was young, our families were killed by the French. Why?" asks one character. "Pacification," replies his friend. The film portrays an endemic 'institutional racism' within the French authorities of that time poor promotion prospects for Muslims, unequal rations, sandals on bare feet in the winter snow rather than regular army boots. More tellingly, army censorship of love letters from an Arab soldier to his French girlfriend.
Sergeant Martinez provides the only sympathetic face. He is a pied-noir who comes from European Christian colonist stock in North Africa. He supports the promotion of some of his soldiers whilst discouraging one intelligent and literate soldier (Saud) from his ambitions for an army career. The Martinez character shows the complexity of this whole colonial class. They were deeply insecure in their own identity regarding both metropolitan Frenchmen and their Arab/Berber compatriots. Martinez favours and then physically assaults his Arab batman Said, enraged by Said's revelation that he knows that Martinez' mother was also Arab. Colonialism had schizophrenic effects on many of its children. Having wished Martinez dead, Said later dies trying to save the man with whom he has had a very on/off relationship. Racial and class divisions go deep and make human bonding difficult.
In contrast, the relationship between ordinary French citizens and their Muslim liberators is portrayed as warm and generous. One girl offers herself to Saud and they part company on the understanding that their relationship is permanent. He explains that such a relationship would be socially unacceptable in his homeland. Racial mixing was always frowned upon more in the colonies than in the mother country fear of the colonisers themselves being colonised! The film ends with a visit to a war cemetery in Alsace and shows the graves of Muslim soldiers who 'mort pour la France.' We are informed that the French government froze the war pensions of these soldiers in the 1950's when the colonies became independent. This film helped to prod President Chirac into righting this wrong.
In its portrayal of officers in jeeps making patriotic speeches and Arab volunteers foot-slogging through difficult country, the film underlines a divide which continues to exist within French society. Official France offers well-meaning platitudes but continued to freeze war pensions. The French state perpetuates an anti-religious version of secularism which was born out of the great Schism of the French Revolution. The divisions of the 1790's continue to divide French society Republican/Monarchist, Left/Right, Secular/Religious and now non-Muslim/Muslim. Descendants of those soldiers who lie dead in that Alsatian cemetery 'mort pour la France' are denied the hijab in state schools. The same anti-religious spirit which framed the Ferry educational laws of 1879 is alive and well and is still trying to forge a new secular French identity out of the ashes of the Revolution. The search continues for a new non-religious superglue which will bind all Frenchmen, heart, mind and soul.
Paradoxically, in the USA (the main target of Jihadist terrorism), American Muslims should have no problem in forging a new American identity for themselves in a pro-religious, all-inclusive version of secularism which grew out of American history. France's secularism is as exclusive and narrow as her 'enarquist politocracy' and poses problems for Muslim integration.
Indigenes highlights the simple fact that we all have multiple identities. On the one hand it can be seen as a sensible and worthy attempt to integrate Muslims into official French history. On the other hand it raises uncomfortable issues about integration and identity within contemporary France. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity are only words. How French people live together under them is a complex and compelling matter.
The film successfully raises this issue. It shows one thread of French history in World War 2. There are many other threads Jews, German occupiers, collaborators, Resistance, slave labourers etc. Acknowledging the reality of these different histories and empathising with the characters involved is, in my opinion, the only real way forward in creating a present and future identity which we can all feel part of. History remains the most important subject to study. Fanaticism, ill-will and violence arise out of ignoring it. A deep and thorough study of our multiple histories can only unite humans and light our way forward. This film is a major contribution towards lighting that path.
Bouchareb has made a film that works on three different levels. On the one hand this is a films about comradeship, about men learning to work together as a team to overcome physical and mental hardship, and about survival. On the other it's about the forgotten soldiers of the second world war. France whitewashed the algerian army's support after Algeria declared independence from France, and it has become something of a scandal in recent years, one that the french government has now rectified on the back on this film.
On a much deeper level, and this is the reason I think the film is so important, it's about the arab world and the western world uniting against a common evil. And I think that, given the chaos and the paranoia that we live in now regarding the East and the Arab world, Indigenes' message is a powerful polemic that west and east can live and work together and that we have in the past been a unified force, and can still be - despite recent events.
"Indigènes" is an excellent movie of war, disclosing an unusual theme: the discrimination of the soldiers from the French colonies in World War II. The anti-Semitism is presented in most of the films about WWII; racism and segregation with the American soldiers has been explored in a couple of movies; but the treatment spent to the Arab soldiers in World War II by France command is the first time that I see in a movie. The screenplay, the direction, the performances, the pace and the cinematography are great and gives a magnificent homage to these forgotten and discriminated heroes. The lack of payment of pension plan to the survivors and families by the French government is another example of the level of intolerance and lack of respect in the world of the present days. In the end, it is a great deception that the beautiful message "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" is not applicable to the soldiers from the exploited colonies. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "Dias de Glória" ("Days of Glory")
The film depicts a group of North African volunteers who enlist in the French army to support the French resistance against the Nazis during World War II. The fact that they are fighting for a lesser group of colonial oppressors against a more virile one does not enter their mind and they are ecstatic with the thrill of being on French soil for the first time. Their shabby treatment, however, by bigots in the French army who deny them the privileges that they take for granted becomes the centerpiece of the film. Unlike the French, the North African recruits are not granted leave to visit their families, are not promoted, and are not even allowed tomatoes with their dinner.
The film opens in 1943 as the enlisted men say goodbye to their families in Algeria, Morocco, and Senegal to join the fight against the Germans. Bouchareb follows four men: Said (James Debbouze), a young Algerian is moved to enlist by a recruiter's sloganeering and his own desire to escape his economic hardship; Yassir (Samy Naceri) who joins in Morocco even though he cannot help being bitter toward the French government that killed his family in the name of pacification.
We later meet Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), a solid marksman who falls for a young French woman but their correspondence is intercepted and censored by the French and his "no luck" tattoo on his neck turns out to be prophetic. The strongest character in the film is Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), whose outspokenness against the injustice shown to North African soldiers keeps him from being promoted but earns him a strong following. Said develops a close relationship with Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan), a by the book Captain who nonetheless speaks up for the dedication of his men but when Said happens to suggest that Martinez is part Arab, their relationship ends swiftly and dramatically.
The high point of the film is the battle for a village in Alsace. It is a tense, emotionally harrowing sequence that is the equal of anything in Saving Private Ryan. Days of Glory has a strong point of view but is not didactic. It simply lets us see the face of discrimination against Arab soldiers during the war and the tension that arose in the French army because of it, a harbinger of colonial wars and urban tensions to follow. While the film unfortunately ends on a clichéd note, it is still quite moving and makes sure the brave soldiers from North Africa are acknowledged for their contribution, sadly overlooked these many years.