Days of Glory (Indigenes)

Cannes Film Festival 2006–Rachid Bouchareb's fourth feature, the impressively mounted war film “Indigenes” (“Days of Glory”), took more than a decade to reach the screen, and it feels like a labor of love and conviction.

At once a classic WWII tale and one that's in step with current events, “Indigenes” (literally meaning “Natives”) is now even timelier, though Bouchareb conceived the film prior to 9/11 and the racial riots in France.

France's racist attitude toward North Africans, in and out of the military branch, has been in the news for some time now, but to the best of my knowledge the issue has not been depicted on film. In this respect, Bouchareb's emotionally charged saga is more than welcome. A title card in the end informs that to his day the government has not paid pensions to the North African war vets.

As a reminder to viewers that France and North Africa remain linked, “Indigenes,” whose ensemble won the male acting award in Cannes Film Festival, has been selected as Algeria'snot France'snominee for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar.

The tale follows the First French recruited in Africa, comprising 200,000 North Africans, French North Africans, and black Africans. Set in 1944-5, during the liberation of Italy, Provence, and the Alps, the saga is told from the perspective of four soldiers, whose lives interface.

In August 1944, when French soldiers landed with other Allied forces on the Cote d'Azur (the French Riviera and Cannes' location) to liberate Southern and Eastern France, about two thirds of the fighters were from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and other French colonies.

Shot on location in Morocco and France, the real-life stories are based on extensive research and interviews Bouchareb conducted with many war vets. Though big budgeted ($18 million) and multi-national, “Indigenes” shrewdly downplays its epic scale and battles, instead focusing on the human stories and characters, emphasizing their heroic conduct despite treatment as second-class citizens.

Shifts in location are announced by aerial black-and-white shots that slowly turn to color as the episodic tale begins. The Moroccan recruits are told they can raid the North African locals for food. As a combat unit, most of them are poorly trained, but they are committed to the cause. Take Corporal Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) convinced that the French army is the only legit route toward equality with the colonial powers. He is contrasted with Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan), who praises his men to his superiors, but seldom gives encouragement to them.

Later in the story, the brutal Italian battle teaches them more about survival and duty (both personal and collective) than anything they were trained for. As the war continues and the North African soldiers are denied leave, their two-faced treatment begins to affect their sense of justice and self-worth.

Abdelkader reminds his superiors of their oath to the French Revolution's ideals, but Martinez, a self-loathing half-Arab who's passing as an Algerian of pure French origin refuses to acknowledge their rights. When Abdelkader volunteers for a dangerous mission to Alsace, he does so in the belief it will get him a promotion, but promises are forgotten and injustice prevail.

All the characters, even the ambiguous ones, are sympathetic, though they struggle with the narrative, which occasionally turns them into ideological mouthpieces at best and stereotypical soldiers at worse.

Hence, Abdelkader is the angry freedom fighter, raging at the injustice while maintaining compassion as the leader, while Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) is the romantic soldier fantasizing about a reunion with the French woman he met and fell in love with in Provence. Debbouze transforms his role effectively from a simple-minded to an angrier, more aware soldier, who manages to maintain his human values despite of degradation.

A final coda, at a war cemetery 60 years later, with the only survivor of the unit, may be too sentimental in the way that a similar conclusion functioned in Spielberg's “Schindler's List.” Nonetheless, considering the film's overall merits and its tackling a long-forgotten issue that French officials had been reluctant to deal with, it's a minor fault.

The cast, which includes established actors such as Jamel Debbouze (better known as comedian), Samy Naceri, Sami Bouajila, and Roschdy Zem, is uniformly impressive and deservedly won the Cannes Festival acting prize.

Location shooting in the North African Mountains is particularly striking. Widescreen cinematography by Patrick Blossier serves the epic scale of “Indigenes” as a war film, but Bouchareb knows that the emotional power of his story is totally based on the human drama and the more intimate scenes.

Oscar Alert

“Days of Glory” is the official Algerian submission for this year's Best Foreign-Language Oscar Award. I do hope that the film gets the recognition it deserves from movie critics, the Oscar voters, and the public at large.