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Moulin Rouge

Ambitious, daring, energetic, and entertaining —Marty Mapes (review...)

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The English title for is Indigénes is “Days of Glory,” which seems to speak to the translator’s contempt for American audiences. “Days of Glory” simply conjures “another war movie,” which someone probably thought would sell better. But those looking for some brainless, heroic action will be disappointed by this socially conscious war drama. It’s better to think of this film as “Indigènes,” which translates as something like “Natives.”

Spot the Natives

In America, “Natives” evokes third-world peasants as seen through the eyes of occupying Westerners. In the context of this movie, however, the natives are actually the European-born French citizens. They’re trying to retake their own country from an invading force, and they’re being helped by third-worlders they themselves might dismissively call “natives.”

The setting is World War II, and the protagonists are Algerians. The French had occupied Algeria and had imposed French culture, language, and government on the Algerian natives, but Algerians are still North Africans; they are largely Muslims and Arabs, even if they speak French. Most of the native-born Frenchmen in this movie look down their noses on the Algerians.

The movie opens on a batch of young Algerians signing up to fight in the war. They get on a French ship under the command of French natives and are sailed across the Mediterranean to southern France, where they will help the allies retake the country from the Nazis.

Discrimination = Bad

Throughout the film, and especially in the first two acts, there are many dramatic illustrations of how the native-born French mistreat and disrespect the Algerians. The Frenchmen get promotions, leave, easier assignments, and better equipment and rations. The Algerians, by contrast, are given more dangerous assignments, they are deprived of the education supposedly guaranteed all soldiers, and they get neither the promotions nor the leave that their counterparts get.

Frankly, the movie is heavyhanded in delivering its message. The first incident in the mess hall, where natives get fresh tomatoes and Algerians don’t, is enough to illustrate the types of unfairness these Algerians face. But the movie heaps on the abuse, making sure the audience doesn’t miss a single outrageous example of prejudice.

The characters fare better than the plot. Their reactions are neither overplayed nor overwritten. Whether they are timid, stoic, proud, or just resigned to their second-class status, they recognize the injustice, but know how to live with it. The writing could have used a more resigned attitude so that it didn’t feel so much like a sermon. Granted, the movie is right to portray the injustice — it’s an integral part of the story — but audiences are paying attention and we are smart; we’ll figure it out without it being force-fed to us.

Down to Business

To the film’s credit, the final act stops focusing so much on the issue of prejudice and shows the men fighting gallantly to protect a small village from a Nazi vanguard. These battle scenes are harrowing — not because of some geeky director’s fascination with the mechanics of fighting — but because by the time it happens, we have come to know these men personally, and we care about them. We empathize with the danger and terror they face, and we are rooting for them.

Perhaps the lesson is that, in matters of life and death, people are able to set aside their prejudices and do the right thing. And if that’s so, then why can’t we live that way every day?

Indigénes was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture (The Lives of Others won instead). I probably wouldn’t have given the Oscar to Indigénes, but the acting is good, the cinematography is good, and the setting and focus are original.

Give it a look if you like daylit war movies set in golden deserts and dry hills. Try it out if you like your war dramas heavy on the drama and not so heavy on the war.

But if like your message movies subtle and nuanced, maybe you should look somewhere else.

DVD Extras

There are two extra features on the DVD. The making-of featurette is slightly better than average. The good stuff happens first, start watching it and see if you get hooked. The director and actors are interviewed about their own genealogical connections to the events in the film. Most of the actors had grandfathers and great-grandfathers who fought. How the film got financed and researched is pretty interesting, too. For example, Morocco was solidly behind the project and its government contributed hundreds of soldiers for the film. But before the featurette ends, it resorts to the ol’ “tell us about your character” question put to each of the main actors. If you’ve seen the movie, this becomes almost a waste of time (except for a few back stories that may not have shown up on film); feel free to skip ahead.

The other feature is a short film from director Rachid Bouchareb. What starts out as an intriguing mix of hand-drawn sketches and 3-D animation quickly turns into a what looks like the cheapest way to animate hand-drawn sketches. Human figures waddle in geometric ways that only a computer could love. The story parallels the feature film and — again, at first — is fairly moving. But soon it seems like dialogue has been added to what was supposed to be a silent film in order to explain what didn’t make sense to a test audience. It’s an ambitious little animated film, but unless you get hooked, watch the first minute and then turn it off.

Picture and Sound

The movie looks and sounds very good. The cinematography is aptly gorgeous, capturing the dry setting, and looking wonderful on your TV. The picture is enhanced for 16:9 TVs and the sound is encoded in Dolby Digital surround.

How to Use This DVD

Watch the movie. If you are so inclined, try each of the two special features. Neither needs to be watched all the way through, so watch until you’re bored, then turn off the TV.