Film Reviews

Indigenes (Days of Glory) Rachib Bouchareb

Rating - 9/10

The dismal English title of Rachib Bouchareb's latest film perhaps goes some way to explaining why I found myself watching it in an empty cinema just two days after its national release. Films about World War II are hardly in short supply - Clint Eastwood alone made two last year - and all the major campaigns (and most of the interesting subplots) have already been covered. In fact, prior to this, I hadn't seen a WWII film that captured (and held) my attention since Oliver Hirschbiegel's Der Untergang (Downfall).

The problem with 'Days of Glory' is that conjures up images of national flags, Hollywood A-listers, and the kind of historically inaccurate, one-sided tales of patriotism that have so significantly devalued this sub-genre. It almost sounds like an Alistair MacLean story. I can fully understand why someone glancing at a cinema schedule who knew nothing else about this film wouldn't give it the time of day.

The tragedy is that these people will miss out on one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking war films of the decade.

Indigènes follows a French Army regiment of Algerian volunteers from their recruitment and training in North Africa, through their first taste of battle in Italy, and then for the remainder of the war in France. Each of the men has his own unique reasons for signing up. Brothers Yassir (Samy Naceri) and Larbi (Assaad Bouab) are there for the money; the intelligent corporal Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) has his eye on a military career; Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), who comes from a background of abject poverty and has been sheltered by his mother, wants to prove himself. Their one common goal is to achieve freedom for the Motherland and to be regarded as equals, although members of the regiment share varying opinions regarding the likelihood of the latter.

Indigènes is successful on three different levels - as a war film, as a film about friendship, and, vitally, as a film about inequality.

The first poignant moment comes in the aftermath of the first battle, as Bouchareb effectively communicates the war's incredible waste of human life. We see hundreds of brave North African volunteers, idealistic and fresh from their training camp, obediently advancing into a barrage of machine gun fire for the sake of a desolate stony hill. The chief purpose of this advance, we discover, is to determine the German position. With this established, the French artillery bombard the hillside and a victory is claimed. Afterwards when a journalist asks the French colonel about the number of casualties he is simply told, with some enthusiasm, to report a great French victory.

From this point forward we begin to see more transparent signs of discrimination. The victorious men are told that their celebratory dinner will not include tomatoes, as these have been reserved for the French troops. Abdelkader makes an eloquent stand and the troops get their tomatoes, but this is only the beginning of a greater struggle for recognition, which sees all of the main characters affected in one way or another. Despite showing excellent leadership skills, Abdelkader is repeatedly overlooked for promotion, the powers that be showing a clear preference for French natives despite numerous recommendations from the sympathetic yet outwardly stern Sergeant Martinez. Later on, when the French troops are enjoying leave, the Algerians are told that they have to remain at base where they are subjected to an amateurish ballet performance.

The most powerful scenes are reserved for the film's final third, however, when the troops put earlier disagreements aside to work side by side as a team. The bravery and comradeship of all of the men is obvious, although in the aftermath of the final battle it is once again cruelly overlooked.

The film ends in the present day, with one of the aged Algerian campaigners returning to a military cemetery to pay his respects to his fallen friends. Critics accusing Bouchareb of borrowing this final scene from Saving Private Ryan - a film that ceased to do anything for me emotionally beyond the first twenty minutes - are way off mark. The truly poignant moment is when the elderly man stumbles anonymously - and alone - through the crowded streets to his sparsely decorated, miserable apartment. Onscreen text informs us that the pensions of retired North African servicemen who served France during the war were cut when the countries of their birth gained independence. This climactic scene was presumably the sledgehammer blow that forced Jacques Chirac to amend this atrocious law, which to many, the heroes of Indigènes included, must have been the ultimate in a long line of injustices.

It is to this film's immense credit that it will make the efforts of these seemingly forgotten men somewhat less easy to disregard.