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Film Review by Deirdre Sinnott
Army of Shadows, Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969, French.
June 2, 2006
Soldiers march squarely down the main street, steely eyes staring straight ahead. Their highly disciplined steps and drumbeats echo down the avenue, signaling the beginning of a brutal occupation. Citizens are shot in the street for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. People suspected of being part of the resistance are arrested, tortured, and sent to prisons to die. It's not Baghdad 2003; it's Paris 1942.
Army of Shadows follows one small cell of resisters as they carry out an armed struggle against the German occupation of France. The French resistance developed after the surrender by the French government in 1940 and the formation of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Many groups participated in the resistance including communists, nationalist and followers of General Charles De Gaulle. Resistance cells organized different operations including clandestine paramilitary operations like destroying train lines, underground newspaper publishing, and communicating with the British government to assist the escape of Allied troops stranded or captured in France.
In the beginning of the film resistance leader Philippe Gerbier, played by Lino Ventura, narrowly escapes death in a prison camp. A French commandant and collaborator assures him that the camp, originally built for captured German officers, will be perfectly fine for him, an honor really. Gerbier's captors suspect his involvement in the resistance, but are using the carrot and the stick approach to break him and get him to betray others who also resist.
The theme of loyalty runs deep throughout the film. Will Gerbier rat on the resistance? After killing his guard and running through the deserted and darkened streets, will a barber in a shop where he hides expose Gerbier, clearly an escapee? What is the proper punishment for the compatriot who revealed Gerbier's connection to the resistance, sending him to the prison camp? Is it murder to strangle the traitor rather than shoot him? Is rescuing a captured comrade worth the risk? Is, after being tortured, saving your daughter from being sent into prostitution by revealing low-level operatives a crime punishable by death? What if you didn't expose the other people, the ones who really organize the resistance, should you still die? What is more important than your own life? Are you loyal to country or family?
The film explores a quiet series of moral dilemmas that face any clandestine organization resisting an occupation. And yet when we think about the French resistance we think of heroism in the face of fascism. The beauty of this film is that it shows that people under extraordinary circumstances can and will do extraordinary things.
In one of the most intense scenes of the film a three person team, impersonating German medical transport team, attempt to "transfer" one of their captured leaders from a medical school turned torture chamber. As they drive their captured German truck into the locked compound, and are themselves locked in to wait for their comrade to be discharged to them, the viewer has no idea how the scene will end. Silence, quiet words, the sounds of footsteps, and repressed emotion infuse the scene with tension in a way that the most over-the-top, violent, explosion-filled, rescue scene never could.
The film is filled with wonderful, understated performances, but none better than an aging Simone Signoret, the internationally known actress and wife of Yves Montand. Her role as Mathilde, an average woman turned organizer and resistance leader, is a masterpiece of subtlety as deep emotions flit briefly across her face, defining her character and the extraordinary, heroic role she is forced to play because of the occupation.
While the French Resistance movement couldn't drive the German occupiers out of France, it showed what a determined group of regular people could do in the face of overwhelming military power. Resistance is not futile.
Copyright © Deirdre Sinnott, 6/2/06.