BECKET: Burton and O’Toole on a hammy holiday.
Sweet victory of the ex-colony: France offered a mushy comedy, Avenue Montaigne (set to open in Boston March 2), as its candidate for the Best Foreign Film Oscar whereas Algeria’s choice, the distinguished, ambitious Indigènes|Days of Glory (starts this Friday at the Kendall Square), became one of the five nominees and will have a chance to win on Sunday. Directed by Rachid Bouchareb, a French-born Algerian, Indigènes would be a fine selection, especially if Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima takes Best Picture. Both are smart, serious, polished, superbly shot revisionist revisits to the old battlefields of World War II. They peer with saddened eyes at famous victories — on a rocky Pacific isle, in rural Alsace — of the Allied Forces. What happened beyond what the proud history books inform us?
Indigènes shows that the Gallic victory on their native ground was due to more than the French Underground and the army under Charles De Gaulle. Few know that more than 100,000 North Africans fought in France. Although impoverished victims of colonialism in Algeria and Morocco, these “indigenous ones” (the French name for them) volunteered to rid the fatherland of Nazi invaders. Bouchareb focuses on one such brave unit that crossed the Mediterranean. Indigènes follows an Arab battalion in its two years of walking across Europe, 1943-’44, tinhorns landing in Italy who become grizzled veterans moving north, from Marseilles up and out, finally into the frosty, alien winter of Alsace.
Most of the troop are illiterate, but they can sing by rote a stirring “La Marseillaise.” Much as in the defining Iwo Jima photo-op moment, they plant a French flag in the ground at the end of a skirmish and shout out, “Vive la France!” But the men have another identity. Here the film resonates for contemporary audiences: the Muslim soldiers pray to Allah before going into battle. No, they aren’t terrorists. They’re on “our” side, defending Western Civilization against the barbarian Nazis.
What’s most special about Indigènes is the quartet of marvelous French-born Muslim actors who play the main roles: Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Sami Bouajila, Roschdy Zem. This ensemble won a special group acting award at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. And the film climaxes in one of cinema’s most potent battle scenes, as the four North African soldiers in an Alsace village desperately hold off a battalion of armed-to-the-teeth Germans. It’s as exciting and dramatic as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
At the end, Indigènes jumps ahead 60 years in time, to a grim hill of graves in Alsace where Muslims from the war lie buried. And to make a didactic point: when Algeria decided to fight for its independence, France retaliated by cutting off pensions to veterans from any colony that broke Gallic ties. Pure racism! Yet a happy ending: Jacques Chirac saw Indigènes and pledged that France would honor its war debt. He was moved by the saga of the valiant North Africans. You will be as well.