An admission: I feel actively guilty for not loving Indigènes (Natives, released in this country under the confoundedly meaningless title Days of Glory). It's clearly an important film, documenting the institutionalized racism in the French army against the North African soldiers who, in a very real sense, liberated France from the Nazis. So compelling is its argument in favor of these men and their victories, so righteous its outrage over the whitewashing that history has given to this scandal, Indigènes was actually responsible for shaming the French government into belatedly recognizing the pensions of the surviving indigène veterans, a significant and shocking development in a country with such an institutional hatred of Muslims.
Motion pictures, by and large, are not actually important, Oscar montages notwithstanding, and when a film literally changes history, there's some expectation that it must therefore be brilliant. Not the case here. Indigènes changed history because it depicted something that had been kept hidden for many years, but the clunkiest TV documentary could have done the same. Indigènes isn't clunky - it's of sound craftsmanship with a fine script and great performances - but it's not brilliant. It's thoroughly boilerplate filmmaking, a Hollywood-style pro-soldier anti-war film with just enough of the Hollywood gloss knocked off to make it Cannes-friendly.
In the abstract, the story is pure cliché: squad of soldiers marches through the countryside, rests for a time in a village, continues on to a horrible mission in which they mostly die. There are just enough twists to the formula to keep things at least a little bit fresh, which is that in this case the soldiers are Morroccan and Algerian, they are fighting out of patriotism for a motherland they have never seen, and they are aware to varying degrees that the countrymen whose lives they are saving do not view them as complete people. An American film would never have the balls to present in one package both a gung-ho war story and and indictment of national racism. (Regarding "gung-ho war story": yes, I am aware that this is allegedly an anti-war film. It isn't, any more than the jingoistic Saving Private Ryan, which was similarly misread). For this, I salute Indigènes in its break from genre.
You could hear the "but" coming, right? 'cause here it is: But, because of its focus on race, the film manages to ride smack up against one of my absolute biggest pet peeves, and I've said this so many times that I begin to feel clichéd myself: no good film telegraphs its meaning. If every beat of a story carries the explicit statement of theme, the film is a polemic, and polemics, while not valueless, are inherently inartistic. May I ride one of my hobby-horses for a moment? Brokeback Mountain. Now there's a film of the highest artistry, and it's got one hell of a great political message, and it works so very well precisely because there is not one frame of the entire movie in which one character comes right out and says "society is thus, and that is why we suffer." Indigènes has plenty of those scenes, and they make a fine political essay, which is not typically the same thing as a great motion picture.
Not that political essays can't be great cinema,* but they don't usually try to be, and stylistically, Indigènes is not very interesting. The first battle scene is amazing, I will happily admit that: chaotically noisy, with a visceral punch to every death, even though they are shockingly bloodless. The camera flies around the combat zone like a rag-doll, keeping us disoriented and hopped-up on adrenaline. And best of all, it does this without the washed-out film stock and flickering shutter trickery that have become a veritable running gag in the American war film since Spielberg introduced them in 1998.
Other than that, director Rachid Bouchareb is mostly content to coast. There are no particular flourishes of anything interesting, save for a recurrent motif that whenever the film jumps in space or time, the establishing shot is a bird's eye POV of the fields below, in black & white, fading into color as a cloud passes overhead. I'm really not sure what to make of this other than "it's cool," and it's not really all that cool, and by the fifth time we see it, it's just a little bit silly. Otherwise, this is a simple, conservative film marked by lots of natural lighting and handheld cameras. I don't want to get in a whole thing right now, but I am so entirely over handheld camerawork in European movies. Yes, I know that Indigènes is from a hodge-podge of countries that aren't all in Europe, but plenty of French money made it into the production, and the whole thing feels so French, not least because of all the goddamn handheld cinematography. So again, enough with the handheld. It's not hip and indie anymore, it hasn't been for half a decade, and it just makes it look like you couldn't afford a dolly.
Insofar as the film actually works as blah blah humanist, it's because of the truly exceptional cast, the cumulative winner of Best Actor at Cannes. Almost entirely full of actors unknown in this country (the one exception is Jamel Debbouze, who had a decent-sized part in Amelie), there is not a single false note among the five main characters or the half-dozen primary supporting roles. This is especially exciting as the roles are so archetypal: the charming innocent (Debbouze), the tragic lover (Roschdy Zem), the passionate hothead (Samy Naceri), the quiet everyman (Sami Bouajila) and their hard-nosed but noble leader (Bernard Blancan). Not to single out any of the five, but Zem and Debbouze perhaps stood out the most for the strong humanity they projected through the hackneyed trappings of their parts, and they begot the strongest pangs of emotion I felt anywhere in the film.
So here's where things get tricky: how much credit exactly do I give Indigènes for good intentions? None at all, I guess, because that's pretty much my consistent opinion: all the upright morality in the world doesn't compensate for poor filmmaking. Indigènes isn't poor; it's just not as good as I would like for it to be. It's a fine, flat movie that nobody will be talking about in three years. Probably best, in that case, to stop worrying about it.