I picked up Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigénes because I’ve become fascinated by all these movies—um, not too many of which issue from America, come to think of it—about the collision between Arabic/African/Muslim culture and Anglo Western culture. Part of it’s just fallout from 9/11 and some reading I did back then, combined with things like Bush’s endlessly repeated, endlessly pitiable claim that al Qaeda attacked us because “they hate our freedom”—a justification which in terms of balls-out brazenness tops the reasons of record for invading Poland and Panama. (Though not Iraq.) The culture clash has been sparking filmmakers since at least The Battle of Algiers in 1966; Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Head-On, and A Prophet make up my favorite stops along the way since then. Those movies all take place during the times they were made in, but Indigénes is set during World War II, a war which seemed to have the same accelerating effect on both African-American G.I.s and the Africans who got sucked into the Free French army: an enlightened impatience brought on by exposure to a wider world that couldn’t be forgotten once the peace came.
Bouchareb’s movie is spread over the last two years of the war, and follows a platoon of Algerian and Moroccan troops as they go through training, then are thrown into action in Italy and Provence, and finally become the first French troops to enter Alsace near the war’s end. The men are expected to give their all without getting even the minimal respect in return: they’re passed over for furloughs and promotions, their mail is senselessly censored and withheld, and after the war even their pensions are made forfeit. Some of the situations look familiar because they’ve been recycled from other war movies, sometimes with great precision: a colonel who lies through his teeth, a climactic set-piece in which a handful of men must defend an important bridge, and most pointedly a coda in which an aging veteran visits the cemetery where his fallen comrades are buried.
All of these things play out with a wholly different feeling than they did in Saving Private Ryan and other WW II flicks because the context is wholly different. The platoon sergeant, for instance, despite having light skin and the misleading name of Martinez, turns out to be hiding a dark-skinned Arab mother, and something odd is afoot when the troops singing La Marseillaise with such brio are composed of these men. In one of the best scenes, the already demoralized Africans are promised a night of “dancing” which turns out to be a low-rent excerpt from Swan Lake; the group shot of their faces, echoing a moment from Grand Illusion, captures the process by which their initial puzzlement mutates into disappointment and finally outrage.
Indigéne can’t touch Haneke’s Caché as a study of the aftereffects of colonialism; indeed, its theme isn’t much more nuanced than “The French, they are a fucked up race.” But it worked on me, thanks in no small part to its five lead actors. (I took a particular shine to the puppy-faced Jamel Debbouze, who because of a boyhood accident plays his scenes with a disfigured hand tucked away inside a pocket.) Bouchareb himself handles a couple of the battle scenes amazingly well: an overhead shot taken from God’s own cloud makes the men on a rocky hillside look precisely like ants scrabbling over the earth. Even better, near the end there’s a moment when a battle plan has succeeded beyond all expectation, and the moment in which the men (and we) feel safe enough to let our guard down and savor the miracle extends far beyond the few seconds it actually occupies before the roof falls in on everybody’s head.
P.S. “Indigénes” means “natives” of course, but somehow by the time The Weinstein Company released the movie here, its title had magically morphed into Days of Glory, which—since it concerns a group of men who’re treated like cannon fodder in all but the most literal sense—is tantamount to releasing Chinatown as And Justice for All.