Saturday, August 21, 2010

Extraordinary Courage

Army of Crime
Directed by Robert Guédiguian
Written by Robert Guédiguian, Serge Le Péron & Gilles Taurand
With Simon Abkarian, Virginie Ledoyen, Virginie Ledoyen, Robinson Stévenin, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Lola Naymark, Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin

There has never been a dearth of French films about the World War II resistance movement, including classics from directors Jean-Pierre Melville (Army of Shadows), Louis Malle (Lacombe Lucien, Au Revoir Les Enfants), Francois Truffaut (The Last Metro) and Bertrand Tavernier (Safe Passage). For his new resistance epic, Army of Crime, director Robert Guédiguian brings to the screen the true story of a group of resistance fighters of various nationalities, led by Armenian poet Missak Manouchian, whom Guédiguian grew up idolizing as a hero. His film humanizes these men and women without robbing them of their bravery.

Army of Crime opens with a haunting voice-over refrain, as we hear the names of resistance fighters—all with decidedly un-French names—who “died for France.” The movie's early scenes leisurely show these freedom fighters in their everyday lives, as their eventual leader, Manouchian (Simon Abkarian), is seen with his beautiful French wife Mélinée (Virginie Ledoyen) before his arrest and confinement in a prison camp; only after he's released does he begin his involvement with the underground, which includes young immigrants from Hungary, Romania, Poland, Italy and Spain. Since they don't take orders from others very well, their daring is both their strength and weakness: we see their recklessness paying off against the Nazis, but it's also ultimately their downfall.

Guédiguian's bold, intelligent drama methodically explores the psychology of these men and women as they throw themselves into the work of hobbling, if not destroying, the Nazi war machine. A pivotal moment comes when Manouchian (who earlier said that he cannot kill anyone) takes a grenade and, for the first time, kills several Nazi soldiers. Afterward, he stands over the dead bodies to stare at the carnage he has caused. Although the poet had tried to avoid outright murder, he now realizes that it's the only way to try and prevent the Nazis from winning the war, even if it costs him his own life.

For Army of Crime, the director and his collaborators have painstakingly recreated wartime Paris; that verisimilitude—along with a uniformly strong cast that comprises nary a familiar face (aside from glamorous Ledoyen)—adds to the film's stunning authenticity. Guédiguian also augments original chamber music by French film composer of the moment, Alexandre Desplat, with well-chosen works by Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi.

The refreshing complexity of Army of Crime honors the courage of many ordinary men and women who fought and died for a country that wasn't even their own.
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