Dec 13, 2006

Days of Glory/Indigenes

This is an unfortunately generic title for a great war movie. The name in French (it's a French-Algerian-Moroccan coproduction) is Indigenes, which translates as "Natives", which would have been a much more apt title. Its five main actors won the best prize for male acting at Cannes this year and with good reason. The movie is also Algeria's official entry to the Oscars, and I hope it gets nominated. It would be great if it won, too.
Indigenes deals with the Arab soldiers that fought for the French army in WWII and were treated with racism, unfairness and contempt by the French, which should not surprise anybody. This film is an excellent war movie that quietly asserts its outrage over the injustices committed to the North African soldiers which were recruited to fight in the name of Vive la France.
The movie is a conventional war film, very well done, with great dramatic moments, great suspense and tension, and well rounded wisdom in the observation of humanity. Its greatest virtue is that it wears its outrage with dignity, not bombastic selfrighteousness, which can be a common trait of outraged war movies. It reminded me of Kubrick's Paths of Glory and of a fantastic, outraged film from Sidney Lumet with Sean Connery called The Hill; both about the cruelty of war, not between enemies, but inside your own ranks. It really is one of the best war movies I've seen and instead of the yearly Clint Eastwood kissass festival, if you are going to see a war movie, this should be it.
In Indigenes, the abuses keep coming, slowly, but surely. Many details, some relatively banal, others terribly outrageous, keep piling up as these men slowly realize they are being cynically used and abused by the French military. First there are no tomatoes for the Arabs and the Africans, then there is no leave to see their families, then it's censorship of their letters (if addressed to French white women) then it's no promotions through the ranks, despite outstanding heroism and evident leadership qualities. It slowly dawns on you that they are being used, quite cunningly and ruthlessly, as bait to get at the Nazis.
The film raises some very interesting questions, extremely relevant to our day and age. It makes you quietly wonder how could the French fight against the Nazis and be so relentlessly racist themselves. Although it is mentioned once, one thinks of Vichy. And one thinks of France's own unfortunate, brutal misadventures in Algeria. The movie is an indictment, not only of human prejudice (which not only happens from the French to the Arabs, but within the Arabs themselves), but also of the poisonous nature of European colonialism.
More importantly, one thinks about the legacy of French colonialism and racism present today in the youths who set fire to their neighborhoods in France because today, as then, they are not truly allowed to participate fully in the egalité and the fraternité that the French are so proud of.
After a while, even though they stick it out because they believe they will be rewarded somehow, because their sense of honor is genuine, you just know, painfully, that the North African soldiers are not going to see squat, not even a freaking thank you. Their contribution will not only be completely ignored, but a scandalous postscript at the end of the film confirms that to this day, the French refuse to honor the memory of these soldiers.

ps: And here is a comment from a disgruntled viewer on imdb who offers another view of history. There will always be more than one side to any story:
The fact that the "goums" where "mercenaries" and inflicted atrocities on the Italian and German population is completely ignored by the film that glories the supposed "liberation". Please refer to articles on Esperia and Sofia Loren's much earlier movie entitled "La cociara" where 60,000 Italian women (and men) suffered alleged rapes and plundering from these "liberators"..the French army is not without its share of shame as a result of non-prosecution of atrocities. This film presents a totally distorted figure. To be more specific, after the battle at Monte Cassino the French general gave the Moroccan Algerian and other North African troops 50 hours of blanket freedom to do as they wished. This resulted in the remaining 7000 men (from the 12000) that went on attack raping and pillaging the small Italian towns as they passed them once the Germans retreated. They even raped the village priest, who died from those injuries a few days later. That makes it particularly disgusting to then provide the image of "liberators" when they were mercenaries. Some apparently still draw war pensions from the French government.
Moral of this story: war is inhuman and human history sucks.

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