Tales of heroes unwelcome
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Rachid Bouchareb’s Days of Glory could become a motherlode for Trivial Pursuit questions. Which Algerian movie won a 2007 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination? What unique acting award was won at Cannes? (A Best Actor prize for the whole male cast.) How did a film about French history change the course of French history?
We all know that one by now. President Jacques Chirac saw the movie and committed his government to reform pension payments for foreign-born war veterans. Bouchareb’s film, either by cunning or by an innate conventionality, accommodates its radical cynicism about France’s treatment of colonial soldiers – as second-class cannon fodder – in an unchallenging, easy-viewing narrative somewhere between Kelly’s Heroes and The Big Red One.
The main enlisting characters in Indigènes – the original and better French title, with its point-making hint of racism (“Natives”) – are North Africans. Saïd, played by the French comic star Jamel Debbouze, who also co-produced, is a nervous, puppyish Algerian. Abdelkader (Samy Bouajila) is tall and hotheaded, with officer ambitions. Then there are Messaoud (Rochdy Zem), the marksman, Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan), the pied noir leader, and Yassir (Say Naceri), the Moroccan Berber shepherding his younger brother through battle as the Seventh Algerian Infantry Regiment moves from Italy to France and on to the cold, clinching push into Alsace during world war two.
The characters wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood movie: brave but headstrong squaddies who have punch-ups in the canteen, fall in love with local girls and in dialogue interludes muse on peace or home – or here grumble about the French leave denied to these outsiders from the Maghreb.
That is Bouchareb’s point: these Africans who fought for France were treated as foreigners. But too many scenes are variations on the same theme. If you need someone as a comrade, don’t treat him as a flunkey or interloper: yes, yes, we get the point. Whisked through the bordello of war – “Wham bang, thank you, man” – these men retired with a whore’s thanks and their self-respect thrown after them. The best feature of Days of Glory is its exposure of a quiet scandal that Bouchareb has now made noisy and global. The worst is its failure – or its audience-babying disinclination – to make the form as well as the content go “boom” inside our minds and senses.
Just compare another French-language film released this week: Olivier Meyrou’s brilliant documentary Beyond Hatred. Meyrou doesn’t only have a public-interest grievance to air, the homophobia of a neo-Nazi underclass in France, manifested in a 29-year-old gay man’s brutal murder in a Reims park in 2002. Meyrou gives that grievance an intenser resonance by creating his own style and structure, his own cinematic echo chamber.
No omniscient overvoice here, just the words of survivors and fallout victims. There is no visual image of the murdered man, before or after the battering that left him – in the sister’s tragicomic words – “unrecognisable except for his hair extension”. (There’s the banality of atrocity for you.) Above all, there is no sense, as in Days of Glory, of being shepherded towards a foregone conclusion. Yes, the deed committed by three human monsters will live for ever in infamy. But is there any other moral? Any other comfort for a mother, father and sister whose lives imploded one day in a confrontation with evil, at once an all-transforming apprehension and an all-benighting incomprehension?
One scene defines the film’s mixture of bleak nihilism and no-surrender forensic passion. The sister’s long account of her learning of the murder, and her identifying of the body, is voiced over a single, static though subtly changing image of the park pathway where he was attacked. Only joggers disturb the dusky stillness. Lamps come on, trees darken, the path stays there: a reminder of all that is unsaid, un-screamed and unresolved; a demonstration of how some filmmakers can touch a subject’s quiet core while others use cliché gestures to palpate its surface.
Rowan Atkinson’s inept Everyman grows on one. Like a carbuncle, Mr Bean is unsightly, incongruous and largely noiseless, save for a few strangulated sounds. In his second feature these are mostly in French. (His voice may have learnt this secret passage through silent knockabout from Monsieur Hulot). Yet in Mr Bean’s Holiday the titular twit has become an almost endearing pal. Winning a church raffle, he takes a trip to Cannes, full of pratfalls, prattishness and panic attacks of ineptitude. The good sight-gags help, including a stay-awake-at-the-wheel driving sequence (appalling but funny), a lesson in how to dispose of oysters in a restaurant while pretending to swallow them, and a clever slapstick climax at the Cannes Film Festival.
Bean’s insularity is the joke. The miracle – also a joke – is that this skit on twerpy Englishness has become a worldwide phenomenon. Bean is global, while Atkinson’s funnier TV creation, Blackadder, never got beyond Dover. Reason: you need to translate the latter’s transports of ornate sarcasm, while Bean needs no interpreter. This Home Counties nitwit, inseparable from his tie, patched-elbows jacket and look of button-bright idiocy, was surely swept off the floor of a minor public school. Bean is so throttled with nerdy diffidence that he has developed its opposite as an antibody. He has become a dangerous lunatic, no less surreally at home – a second home – in his flair for unwitting maladroitness edging into witting malice.
Watching Mira Nair’s The Namesake is like reading a novel on a long-haul flight. It keeps falling from your fingers, joining the spent napkins and missing pens on the floor. You retrieve it; it drops again. Finally you switch on a movie.
Adapting Jhumpa Lahiri’s namesake novel, the director’s jumpy recent movie record (the lively Monsoon Wedding, the hot-air Vanity Fair) jolts to another register: the flat-as-leftover-champagne magnum opus. This multi-generation tale of an Indian immigrant family in America gasses on for two hours, losing fizz as Mum (Bollywood star Tabu) and Dad (Irfan Khan) age, sonny (Kal Penn) goes native and actresses with effervescent names (Zuleikha Robinson, Jacinda Barrett) watch the bubbles die in their dialogue. The message for moviemakers is simple. Never fall in love with a long novel. Or only if you can summon enough disrespect to turn it into a movie.
Movies! The very word conjures a magic realm. Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream is a modest but spellbinding documentary. The director Stuart Samuels calls back time so we can re-experience the 1970s, when Pink Flamingoes, Night of the Living Dead and Eraserhead were among the witching-hour treats for insomniacs growing up in a pre-video culture. You had to go out to see a film! Sometimes late at night! Think of it! And think of the excitement and communal madness. (People lit candles, wore funny costumes and pre-parroted the dialogue at Rocky Horror.) Samuels puts the modern movie age on trial. David Lynch, John Waters and George A. Romero are among those testifying. Book your place at the back of the courtroom.