- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

It might be hard to believe now, but Muslims and Christians once fought side by side to defeat what both saw as a common enemy.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing this. While there have been many, many films about World War II, the story of the North Africans who fought for France has been little told.

“Days of Glory” (“Indigenes”) rights this wrong — and another. French President Jacques Chirac recently announced that the pensions of foreign soldiers who served in the French army will finally be made equal to those of French soldiers. The reported reason for this change of heart is that he was moved by a private screening of this film.

It’s easy to see why he found “Days of Glory” so affecting. Any didacticism in the film — and there is some — is forgotten as soon as one gets lost in the storytelling.

“Days of Glory,” an international co-production in Arabic and French, is up for a best foreign film Oscar (officially as an Algerian entry) this Sunday. The film follows a group of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian men, a small part of the 130,000 Africans and North Africans who helped liberate France from the Germans.

Perhaps the weakest part of the film is motivation — it’s never really clear why the five central volunteers enlisted. Not one of them had even set foot in France.

Moroccan brothers Yassir (Samy Naceri) and Larbi (Assaad Bouab) say it’s the money. There’s a hint it’s also why young Algerian Said (Jamel Debbouze) joined. His family lives in abject poverty, but he tells his mother, “I want to help France,” after he hears a man marching through the town in 1943 declaring, “We must wash the French flag with our blood!”

Less apparent is why Algerians Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) and Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) joined. Messaoud comes to value the new world to which he gets exposed — but he couldn’t know he would fall in love with a Frenchwoman. (“Ever slept in sheets before?” he responds when another soldier asks him why he plans to settle in France after the war.)

Abdelkader is the most educated — and ambitious — of the bunch. The corporal can read and write, unlike most of the North Africans. He hopes to make colonel one day, but it soon becomes apparent that Frenchmen are always promoted above foreigners.

That’s the least of the indignities. Fresh tomatoes, for example, are only for Frenchmen. So is the opportunity to take leave to visit loved ones. Abdelkader tells the uneducated, poor Said that the army means equality — in his uniform, he’s the equal of the others. The rest of the film shows up his naivete.

Abdelkader is more of a patriot than the French themselves when he tells the men they must fight for their right to those French ideals of “liberty, equality, and above all, fraternity.”

The film is told in a series of vignettes until the men reach Alsace. What holds the film together is the utter realism of the performances. The ensemble cast shared the best actor honor at Cannes, and it was well deserved. These men aren’t saints — like those of any other races, some are brutes and some are not. But while they fought to liberate France from one racist enemy, it seemed they faced another.

Rachid Bouchareb, a French director of Algerian descent, has done that rare thing — made a moving film that has also, in its way, changed the world.

***

TITLE: “Days of Glory” (“Indigenes”)

RATING: R (war violence and brief language)

CREDITS: Directed by Rachid Bouchareb. Written by Olivier Lorelle and Mr. Bouchareb. In Arabic and French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

WEB SITE: www.tadrart.com/tessalit/indigenes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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