Cinema Signal:

France During World War II:
From Defeat to Liberation
by Thomas Christofferson
. "Days of Glory" (aka, "Indigenes" - Natives)

An Oscar nomination doesn't tell you why a particular film is so honored, so let me suggest that this one has a lot to do with the performance level. The ensemble of actors who play the Algerian volunteers fighting for France's liberation from their Nazi oppressors are of the highest order of accomplishment. Of course, some credit for his splendid choices and use of a remarkable pool of talent goes to French co-writer and director Rachid Bouchareb whose 10th film this is as a director.

The issue of the film is the little known facts around North African Muslim men volunteering for service in the French army as it fought against the Germans during World War II. The obscurity of the incident is so complete in France today that the main actors (who are, themselves, of North African descent) didn't know of France's discrimination towards the soldiers they considered "native" until filming began.

What Bouchareb's scenario shows, as well, is the deep sense of patriotism toward France that these men felt. Their volunteerism came from their self-identification as citizens of France. They were fighting for "their" country. But, however valiantly they did it, however much of their blood was spilled on the battlefields, official policy was to virtually ignore it, denying them increases in rank, leaves for home and, even, tomatoes in the mess line, all of which was suitably given to the French troops fighting alongside them.

The essence of the story is told through the experiences of five Muslim men (the "natives"): five who came through many a campaign and surviving until the last. These are Abkeldaker (Sami Bouajila) whose leadership qualities are recognized by his French superiors; Messaoud Souni (Roschdy Zem) who falls in love with a French woman during a respite in a welcoming France after defeating a German emplacement; Yassir (Samy Naceri) who takes such care of his younger brother only to survive him; Said Otmari (Jamel Debbouze) whose eager good nature has an explosive quality when goaded; and the man he is chosen to assist as an aide, Sergeant Roger Martinez (Bernard Blancan) whose harsh hardness is part of his design of discipline, without which his rag tag group might have had many more fatalities than they did.

The climax comes when these five defend a bridge in a small Alsatian town, fending off a Nazi division for the oncoming Americans. The film's whole meaning is contained in the event, showing how so little recognition or appreciation for their contribution and sacrifice was so disgracefully ignored by the French for so long a time.

The betrayal that such shameful mistreatment embodies must be a great agony for the heroic survivors and for the families of those who gave their lives in a just cause for almost non-existent appreciation. The film accuses France of exploiting their own patriots and then dishonoring them with second-class treatment--and you don't hear them denying it. In fact, it's enough of a scandal to have produced an effect on France's discriminatory payments to its veterans. Because the country has now been obliged to take another look at it, their colonial troops' pensions will rise from around $70 per year to over $600.

One other remarkable element of the film is in the arcane matter of sound effects, particularly in the early battle sequence. The metalic hardness of fired bullets and of rocks and boulders showering down on the ground after a bomb's impact are almost palpable. It's so crackling and deadly sounding that you feel it, and it puts you in closer emotional companionship with the soldiers than you expected to be. It's an extraordinary use of the medium and more attention-getting even than the helmet penetrations in Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." A small detail perhaps, but symptomatic of a careful and creative filmmaker.

Armand Amar and Cheb Khaled composed the wailingly moody and powerful score in the minor key of Eastern music, with an end title song that'll keep you in your seat.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Roschdy Zem, Samy Naceri, Jamel Debbouze and Sami Bouajila
Fine ensemble acting on the battlefield.

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