Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The battle for Algiers

There are two things wrong with Indigenes, and neither have anything to do with the film itself, a deserved Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film that opens in New York on Friday. (Politicking often has more to do with securing a nomination in this category than in any other; last year's dreary French entry, Joyeux Noel, clearly had someone carrying its Perrier for it). The first error is its generic and completely ill-suited U.S. title, Days of Glory, which someone at IFC Films or The Weinstein Company, its co-distributors, obviously thought might be catchier than the more pointed Indigenes, a derogatory term the French used to describe the 130,000 Algerian soldiers who fought and died for their ungrateful "homeland" in World War II. There is no glory whatsoever in what these so-called "natives" did, and the film, co-written, co-produced, and directed by Rachid Bouchareb, doesn't pander to Greatest Generation cliches in showing their corpse-strewn sacrifice. Days of Glory, or Glory Days, has been used as a title at least 20 times previously, including another instance just last year, and it hasn't gotten any fresher with age. Why not just Indigenes, and flatter the audience that goes to (gak!) subtitled films for their intelligence? That way the two distribution entities needn't have bothered with the vaguely insulting poster image, which trumps up the film's unsentimental romantic angle. A date movie this is not.

Indigenes is about four North African men who in 1943 proudly enlist in the fight against the Nazis (one, Yassir, is played by Samy Naceri, the star of France's phenomenally popular Taxi movies. You didn't see Jimmy Fallon assuming his role in our yellow cab version). Wet behind the ears, the men are trained, then duly dispatched to Italy, Provence, and the Vosges for dangerous, scut-work combat duty, clearing the way for the bigger and more prestigious campaigns to sweep through. Gradually they realize their lot as second-class citizens, subject to niggling racial persecution--no fresh rations, no boots for winter warfare, no leave, little promotional prospects for Muslims, and censorship of private mail, specifically correspondence between a native French woman and one of the recruits. The combat scenes, shot by cinematographer Patrick Blossier, are graphically old-school; Saving Private Ryan added whiz-bang CGI effects to the battlefield reportoire but Indigenes hearkens back to the low-tech, close-in portrayals favored by Samuel Fuller and Robert Aldrich. The film concludes with a grueling battle, led by the men, in Alsace-Lorraine, where they are received open-heartedly as liberators by the citizens. Liberty and fraternity, however, were not to last. Dismayed by colonial uprising and eventual liberation, events triggered by just this sort of patronization, the French government froze the veterans' pensions, a state of affairs that lasted 47 years until the release of this film.

And therein lies my second complaint. Shamed into action by his wife, who was profoundly moved by Indigenes, president Jacques Chirac decided to reinstate the pensions, a move that will affect 80,000 veterans or widows from more than 20 countries and cost the government $140 million. Now that is a real Hollywood ending, and a triumph for the form in changing men's minds...but you wouldn't know it from the film, which needed a final title card explaining the government's action. Surely one could have been added. The U.S. distributors have done what they could to make the forcefully indignant Indigenes a feel-good movie, but, given an earned opportunity to celebrate its accomplishment, they blew it.

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