Algeria, 1943, through Italy and France, to Alsace in early 1945, with a coda years later. Arabs volunteer to fight Nazis to liberate France, their motherland. We follow Saïd, dirt poor, an orderly for a grizzled sergeant, Martinez, a pied noir with some willingness to speak up for his Arab troops; Messaoud, a crack shot, who in Province falls in love with a French woman who loves him back; and Abdelkader, a corporal, a budding intellectual with a keen sense of injustice. The men fight with courage against a backdrop of small and large indignities: French soldiers get better food, time for leave, and promotions. Is the promise of liberty, equality, and fraternity hollow?Written by
And the award for Best Foreign Language Film goes to...
France 1943. Indigenous Moroccan soldiers still wet behind the ears are called in to the 17th infantry to defend their 'motherland' against the ongoing German occupation. Their goodness and patriotism are unmistakable and Saïd (Jamel Debbouze) remarks how "If I liberate a country, it's my country, even if I've never even been there." Here is a good-hearted contingent of North African soldiers who hope to catch some of the victory's glory, but whom are repeatedly shifted to the backseat because of their name, skin and accent.
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
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