The Reeler

Reviews

February 15, 2007

Days of Glory (Indigènes)

Long-view history lesson about Algerians in WWII hits its mark

When France fell in the summer of 1940, the entire French army (1.5 million troops) was deported to prison camps in Germany. Over the next three years of World War II, the exiled military leader Charles de Gaulle attempted to rebuild the French army; part of that plan included recruiting soldiers from France's colonies in North Africa. The new film Days of Glory (whose original French title is the more accurate Indigènes, meaning "natives") is a long-view history lesson about the experiences of some of those soldiers, an emotionally solvent treatment that redresses a still-lingering issue in France: When colonies like Algeria became independent, the military pensions of the Algerian soldiers who fought for France in WWII was frozen. What director Rachid Bouchareb, a Frenchman of North African descent whose grandfather and great-grandfather fought for France in both world wars, hoped to accomplish -- namely, justice -- became a reality last September after President Jacques Chirac saw the film and reinstated pensions for North African veterans.

Days of Glory (which is nominated for a best foreign language Oscar) is clearly driven by this intended purpose, and more often than not that works to its advantage, though there are moments when the Muslim soldiers become exasperatingly one-note, speaking to each other in noble, clinching statements that would be more compatible with a memo to M. Chirac himself. One of the most complex issues in play seems to be why the North Africans agreed to fight in the first place, and Days of Glory opens with a rousing scene in 1943 Algeria, as a village elder rounds up young men by declaring "We must wash the French flag with our blood!" Scores of men are seen dropping everything, lining up to join France in the battle against the Nazis; it's a heartening (if unbalanced) sight. Bouchareb remedies this with quick hits from the soldiers viewers will follow: Brothers Yassir (Samy Nacéri) and Larbi (Assaad Bouab) are in it for the money; Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), a snub-nosed naïf with a worried mom, says "I'm from total poverty -- the Army means total equality"; Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) is big and strong enough not to need an excuse to volunteer for battle -- it is clearly where he belongs; and Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) who becomes a colonel after taking a rudimentary exam, believes that this is his chance to finally get some respect from "the Fatherland," and that his loyalty to his oppressors will be rewarded with the rights of the French. It’s a logic that proves too pristine for this world.

Bouchareb drops his characters directly in the shit, i.e. the Italian front in 1943, and from there the film moves in episodic fashion from battle to battle, most of them in France. Led by the French Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan), who is revealed to have his own "indigènes" issues, the men are ordered to rout out the German stronghold on a large, sloping hill, and the grand mal confusion of such an assignment is captured in terrifying detail. After winning France's first victory since 1940, the boys are made aware that some are more equal than others, even in the mess hall, where Africans get no tomatoes with their dinner. Abdelkader assumes the mantle of spokesman and generally righteous dude, but the racial battle is critically undermined; it’s difficult to fight a war when the other side won’t even acknowledge you.

After a series of mistreatments and indignities, the men are promised that they are being sent on a mission of the utmost importance: that of being the first French troops in occupied Alsace. But when a French general vows, "I give you my word of honor, all France will watch you and remember you," words of alarm if I ever heard them, the determined Abdelkader is willing to believe. The men are led on a fool's errand in Alsace which then builds into a spectacular clash with a German battalion; again Bouchareb’s whole heart seems to be with his men, and their fear and bravery, along with some virtuoso direction, are a heartbreaking rendering of the vicious, quicksilver luck -- good and bad -- of battle. A cemetery coda some 60 years later feels unnecessary -- the point has been made, and with deep, abiding care; may the Fatherland be proud.



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Comments (1)

This was a very emotional, moving film. I recommend it to opens ones eyes to the matter.

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