Film-Forward Review: [DAYS OF GLORY (INDIGÈNES)]

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Directed by: Rachid Bouchareb.
Produced by: Tessalit Productions.
Written by: Olivier Lorelle.
Director of Photography: Patrick Blossier.
Edited by: Yannick Kergoat.
Music by: Armand Amar & Khaled.
Released by: The Weinstein Company/IFC Films.
Language: French & Arabic with English Subtitles.
Country of Origin: France, Morocco, Algeria & Belgium. 120 Minutes. Rated R. With: Jamel Debbouze, Samy Nacéri, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, & Bernard Blancan.

Bringing to a wide audience the story of the participation of North African colonial troops during World War II, Days of Glory crosses Band of Brothers with its focus on one tight-knit unit’s travels and travails from Algeria to Italy through France and the German front, frankly looking at how toughly they fought despite individual and institutional racism.

Recruited in 1943 in their home villages in Algeria and Morocco, the soldiers have only rudimentary training to face a 1944 battle in Italy that is visually similar to one in Flags of Our Fathers. Though hailed for the liberation of Vichy France as they march through Provence, the higher-ups take credit with the press for “our first victory since 1940.” Meanwhile, the North Africans discover the joys and confusions of their first encounter with what they have always been told is their homeland, from the climate to French women and culture. While they proudly join in singing “La Marseillaise,” their growing restiveness in how they are treated compared to French troops leads them to prove their worth by undertaking a dangerous mission, holding a small town in the Vosges for the incoming Americans, filmed as intensely as Saving Private Ryan’s climactic building-by-building battle.

The film moves smoothly back and forth from these extensive battle scenes to the intimate lives of the assorted characters who are familiar from World War II epics, but here with a North African and Islamic slant: the educated Abdelkader (played magnetically by Sami Bouajila) ambitiously develops into a natural leader; the illiterate goat herder, Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), rises above his country bumpkin stereotype to become invested with pride and loyalty; sharpshooter Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) enjoys adapting to Western European freedoms; and entrepreneurial Yassir (Samy Nacéri) matures into a dedicated soldier when personal revenge becomes his stark motive. Caught in the middle between these troops and their French commanders are their supervising pied noirs, long time residents of North Africa who are of European descent, particularly their sergeant (Bernard Blancan), who is not the typical martinet as he tries, for personal reasons, to thwart mutiny against the administrative and promotional discrimination his troops face, with only some frustrating success, adding another layer to the class and bureaucratic tensions within the France’s World War I army depicted in A Very Long Engagement.

While there have been several movies, such as A Soldier's Story and The Tuskegee Airmen, that have highlighted the proud service record despite ironic racism in the American military during World War II, this is evidently the first to focus on the treatment of France’s colonial forces, during and after the war. The English title, as well as the subtitles translated into British slang, deflects some of the racist slurs for an American audience, as indigènes was a condescending term for men recruited from the colonies. (A colonel’s congratulations peter out as his eyes sweep over a regiment that gets considerably darker, from the Arabs to the Africans.) Just as fighting Nazism inspired returning American veterans to initiate the civil rights movement, this film explicitly links de Gaulle’s rallying cry for “liberté, égalité, fraternité” as inspiration for North African independence, even as the soldiers can tell that Nazi propaganda flyers guaranteeing deserters freedom are a hoax.

Much attention in France has been on the epilogue, with its views of rows and rows of Muslim graves amidst the crosses in a cemetery, and then showing the pitiful living conditions of one of the characters 60 years later as a veteran. A closing explanation details how the North Africans’ pensions were frozen after decolonization and the years of legislative efforts it has taken to get them a semblance of financial equity. By movingly personalizing historical facts and complex issues, Days of Glory adds perspective to France’s continuing fraught relationship with its former colonies. Nora Lee Mandel
December 8, 2006



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