'Glory' joins ranks of war classics
One of the best films nominated for an Oscar this year arrives three days before Sunday's ceremony. Annoying, but true. But better last- minute than never. The nominee from Algeria in the foreign-language category, Rachid Bouchareb's "Days of Glory," is a movingly acted, terrifically old-fashioned World War II picture rethought as a post-colonial rebuke.
The Free French Army enlisted more than 100,000 citizens of its colonies to fight the Nazis. The film, which Bouchareb wrote with Olivier Lorelle , is focused on a handful of North African Arabs who, despite never having stepped foot on French soil, were determined to risk their lives for their fatherland, or, depending on who's speaking, the motherland. Their patriotism seems both heroic and ironic, since the father-and-motherland would pass a law in 1959 cutting off non-French soldiers' pensions after France relinquished its colonies. (That law was overturned in 2002, but inequities remained, and Bouchareb's film has reopened the issue.)
That tension between duty and distrust drives the film, which begins in Algeria in 1943 and ends a year later in a decimated Alsatian village. The soldiers we meet join up for different reasons. Two Moroccan brothers, Larbi (Assaad Bouab ) and Yassir (Samy Naceri ), fall in to pay for Larbi's wedding. And Saïd (Jamel Debbouze ), against his mother's wishes, follows impassioned fellow Algerians who want to liberate France from the German occupation.
First it's off to Italy, where after some very basic training, they find themselves integrated among French soldiers, scaling a hill to take out their German attackers. With that early sequence, Bouchareb has reeled us in. He means for us to know that he's a war-movie classicist. His shots are long and wide, and his editing spare.
That battle bonds the colonial soldiers to their French comrades, but the two sides never seem truly equal. The movie even shows us the caste system at play in the ranks. The Arabs were slightly better off than the darker-skinned sub-Saharan Africans, one of whom is denied the mess-hall tomatoes every one else enjoys. The soldier is embarrassed, but speaking up for him is Abdelkader (a fantastic Sami Bouajila ), a colonel who publicly protests to the persnickety Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan ) by stomping on a crate of tomatoes.
The Arabs, meanwhile, are fighting not only a world war, but also French racism, and, in their barracks, each other. A strapping marksman named Messaoud (Roschdy Zem ) gives Saïd hell for having earned a reputation as Martinez's pet. He violently detests the accusation, baring a side of himself that complicates his aura of sweetness. But Saïd and Martinez do forge the film's most interesting bond. It's part familial, part fraternal, vaguely sensual.
"Day of Glory" itself evokes a handful of American war films. In particular, it's as if Bouchareb has wed the revisionism of "Glory," about black men who fought for the North during the Civil War, and the structure of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." This movie presents another piece of the incomplete WWII movie puzzle (You can make the same film about black American soldiers .)
The parallel between Bouchareb's filmmaking skill and his characters' perseverance in combat is unmistakable. The movie's political grievances are all the more resonant because the sequences are drawn carefully within recognizable genre tropes. The result is not a radical work, but a movie that through its sheer familiarity (the heroes' welcome, the sharpshooter figure, the hard-nose sergeant) demands to be equated with other solid and stirringly made war films. Abdelkader and other Arab soldiers insist on a similar, humane acknowledgement from a government that denied them the liberty, fraternity, and equality it promised.