Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Army of Shadows" (Language - French) (1969) - Movie Review

“Army of Shadows” while seems like an aspiring film about the sleeper group against the Nazi regime misses its mark quite a bit and having made three years after the riveting and scarily realistic “The Battle of Algiers”, Jean-Pierre Melville’s supposed master piece loses us right from the start. It comes back to some spellbinding chilling moments in the end to scoop us off but the flaw of the overall film looms well enough to leave me unperturbed. Despite that, it does have an eerie mood in presenting these players behind the curtain depending solely on the secrecy and executing their plans.

The film begins with its primary character Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) being brought in the camp by French police marking the beginning of Nazi occupied France. Well mannered, stunningly elegant and suave is Philippe who instantly identifies the capable and the incapable in the camp. Before he could plan an escape with a fellow inmate, he is transferred where he improvises the situation to play in favour. We see the life outside he begins to pursue with his clan of soldiers hiding in the dark and living under constant threat of being betrayed and fall into the hands of German to be tortured and ultimately die a slow miserable death.

Melville’s film goes through the hardship with cold hands when they have to execute a traitor with no mercy whatsoever. So when the Nazi regime occupied it is like any other occupation and the need for resistance is self explanatory but the hardship and the detrimental sacrifice and violence these characters carryout goes with silence. What were they thinking when they are brought to the ditch of violence to fight for their freedom? Was their philosophy disturbed by this dreadful work and living in shadows? There are voice overs explaining the plans and the skill of their fellow soldiers but there seems to be a page torn from those monotonic recitations of the daily labour of fighting for freedom.

They recruit a young man Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) curious, talented and ultimately in for the thrills from the get go. He is specifically ensured that his family ties are limited. He has an elder brother living a meager life of surviving in this cruel regime. The film reveals a surprise of how much each member takes their secrecy to their heart which is when “Army of Shadows” got me upright. There we see a commitment unlike any other where tight lipped means what it means.

Slowly but surely we get to know each of the key parties involved in this resistance. There is Felix (Paul Crauchet) a trusted and effective right hand man for Gerdier. There is Mathilde (Simone Signoret) an iron lady with the smartness and bravery to carry on the onus of taking harsh decisions and desperate measures to see the feasibility and effectivity of a mission on the job. Her rescue mission to fetch Felix is one such where there is nothing but practicality. There are no heroic ventures but pure reality of executing a plan.

“Army of Shadows” could have skimmed off a major portion of the film and get right to the resistance’s actions. Not because it has lot happening but the precursor to arrive there does not add any value or point. I love a film when it drains the time and then rewards you with the need for doing so. There is a poem in a silence and the slowness in the way a mood is set and carried on. And I am sure that is the objective Melville went for. Unfortunately it evaporates the interest out of the viewer and by the time we get to the meat of the film, it has detached its view so far.

Every moment of this film reminded how great “The Battle of Algiers” was. It took its sweet time to establish its territory too but the raw nature in which the film slaps you is nothing short of brilliant. It provides the sense of human decay in the midst of struggle for higher purpose for the future of a country. What is wrong and right gets a shade in its true form and we are struggling to take the sides and justify the end, means and what not. “Army of Shadows” is the perfect title and it stands by it but it does not shed the light into the minds of its soldiers.

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