Friday, July 13, 2007

Film Review #111: Days of Glory (Indigènes)
Director: Rachid Bouchareb
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, Bernard Blancan

It’s 1944, and French troops push toward Alsace. Sgt. Roger Martinez (Bernard Blancan), commanding a company of North African recruits, is having a smoke. Martinez is a pied noir – literally, “black foot” – born in Algeria of a French settler father. His orderly, Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), asks him if he misses his family. After Martinez answers yes, he explodes in anger, realizing the orderly has spoken in Arabic and he, lulled by a quiet moment, never imagining such a test from this soft-eyed, guileless boy, has answered in kind. Finding a photo of Martinez’s mother tucked in a book, Saïd has guessed that Martinez – who now roars, “Never mention this again!” – is “passing” as white.

If you had a doubt that we’re in the midst of a bandwagon-level World War II revival, recent news that Spike Lee will direct a stage revival of Stalag 17 – a 1953 Billy Wilder film starring William Holden – on Broadway next year should seal the case. Whatever spin Lee puts on the German prison camp story, Days of Glory informs us that struggles within the military over racism weren’t confined to US forces as the Allies fought Fascism. And as Algeria’s official entry in the 2006 Oscars, Days of Glory was a finalist for Best Foreign Film.

Originally titled Indigènes – French for “natives” and not complimentary – Days of Glory recounts how 500,000 troops recruited from French colonies in Africa – primarily Algerian but also Moroccans and Senegalese – helped liberate France and often served as advance for the regular French troops. The film follows them from their home villages through training, to Italy, the Rhone Valley, the liberation of the French city of Marseilles to cheering crowds, and the march north into the Vosges Valley in bitter winter – the Africans wore sandals – and into a tiny Alsatian hamlet. In an early scene they are sent up an open rocky hill to provoke the Germans into showing themselves. Terrified like frightened farm-boys the world over, they were shot from behind if they turned around, just as some were shot when the war ended and they protested their officers’ attempts to dismiss them without pay. In 1959, the year that director Rachid Bouchareb was born in Paris to Algerian parents, the French government froze the pensions of these veterans following Algerian independence. France passed legislation to redress this in 2001 but neglected to actually allocate funds.

Bouchareb worked on this project, his fourth feature, for over a decade. Members of his family and those of many of the cast fought in World War II for the French and then against them in Algeria’s war for independence. Since the history of the African recruits has been largely left out of official accounts, Bouchareb researched his film by traveling to Africa and interviewing surviving veterans as well as people still living in the French cities liberated by African troops. Bouchareb says in the DVD’s making-of bonus (released in mid-June) that previously it was simply not possible to finance a war film with a largely Arab cast. Jamel Debbouze, a comic film star in his first dramatic role, is a co-producer. Morocco also helped finance the film, providing military troops for extras and training the cast in maneuvers. Bouchareb’s animated short, The Colonial Friend, about Senegalese soldiers in World War II, which has often screened at festivals with his 2001 feature, Little Senegal in festivals, is also on this DVD.

Besides Saïd, there’s the Moroccan Berber Yassir (Samy Anceri) – a goumier or mercenary soldier. He’s there for the money and easily robs the dead, but cares tenderly for his brother Larbi (Assaad Bouab) and wails when he dies in the frozen woods.

Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) falls in love with the French woman Irène during Marseilles’ liberation, and she with him. They both write for months and the army intercepts both their mail, thwarting their efforts to contact each other – until each feels heartbroken and bitter, believing they’ve been used by the other.

Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) hopes to make corporal and rise on his merit. He’s a natural leader who galvanizes and exhorts the men when they are fearful, breaks up fights, and is the lone survivor six decades later in a visit to the cemetery where the rest lie buried. Martinez' early advice to him on leading men - when you don't know what to do, light a cigarette to buy some time - is surprsingly effective for building tension over several repetitions, and an example of Bouchareb's mastery of small details.

Anti-epic in scope, Days of Glory sticks to its five human stories, only signaling changes of geography with a shadow passing over the landscape from an aerial shot. Personal performances make this film and rightfully earned the five principals an unusual group award in Best Actor category at Cannes in 2006. After seeing Days of Glory, France’s then-President Jacques Chirac was so moved that he declared the Algerian pensions reinstated – at an estimated cost of $190 million. Such cinematic efficacy must make Michael Moore green with envy.

This review appeared in the 7/12/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing DVDs of recent films that did not open in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.