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24 Days (24 Jours: La Verite sur l’affaire Ilan Halimi): Film Review

24 Days Film Still - H 2014
Etienne George/Paradis Films

The Bottom Line

A gripping though sometimes heavy-handed kidnapping drama with troubling social-political overtones.

Opens

Wednesday, April 30 (in France); in COLCOA French Film Festival

Director

Alexandre Arcady

Cast

Zabou Breitman, Pascal Elbe, Jacques Gamblin, Sylvie Testud, Eric Caravaca, Syrus Shahidi

Alexandre Arcady chronicles the harrowing 2006 sequestration of Ilan Halimi, a young French Jew whose traumatic ordeal triggered a national outcry against hate crimes.

 

Sticking dangerously close to the real-life incident that inspired it, 24 Days (24 Jours: La Verite sur l’affaire Ilan Halimi) offers up a white-knuckle dramatization of the nearly month-long kidnapping and torture of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi, whose traumatic ordeal at the hands of the “Gang of Barbarians” prompted a massive police manhunt and, eventually, a national outcry against anti-Semitism in France.

Adapted by director Alexandre Arcady (“Break of Dawn”) from an account co-written by the victim’s mother, Ruth Halimi, the film is not always subtle in its portrayal of a family ripped apart by tragedy, but remains captivating as a pure procedural that raises questions about the Paris police's handling of such situations, as well as about the state of race relations in contemporary France. Released at home prior to the Cannes Film Festival, the film could see strong opening numbers amid lots of press coverage, while it’s subject matter and solid performances should spark interest abroad.

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Backed by a terrific cast featuring Zabou Breitman (The Minister) as Ruth Halimi, Pascal Elbe (The Other Son) as Ilan’s father, Didier, Jacques Gamblin (The Finishers) as Police Commander Delcour, and Sylvie Testud (Sagan) as negotiator-psychologist Brigitte Farell, the story remains faithful to events as they were perceived by Ruth and her loved ones, cutting between various viewpoints (the cops, the family, the kidnappers, the captive) and dashing ahead in mostly chronological order.

To that extent, 24 Days can sometimes feel like a thrilling 2-hour episode of, well, 24, with twists and turns coming at you from every direction as the clock keeps ticking. Where the screenplay (by Arcady, Emilie Freche and Antoine Lacomblez) and mise-en-scene work less well is in a few heavily wrought emotional moments that ring falsely, with Arcady laying on the pathos as Armand Amar’s score churns out constant tear-jerking melodies. It’s not that tears shouldn’t be shed for such a devastating affair, but this is the kind of movie where, when somebody drops a plate on the floor, it comes crashing down in slow motion with all the blistering force of an Airbus 380.

Yet while subtlety is not always Arcady’s forte, he does an impressive job covering the incident from several angles at once, beginning on January 21, 2006, when charming cell phone vendor, Ilan (Syrus Shahidi), was lured by a woman to the suburbs of Paris, then kidnapped by a brutal gang of thugs lead by the vicious Youssouf Fofana (Tony Harrison). Hoping to obtain a ransom of €450,000 ($622,000) because, as someone says, “you’re Jews, you have money,” Fofana contacts Ilan’s parents, threatening to hurt their son if they don’t pay up. Little does he know that they both live rather modestly, Ruth working as a doorwoman in an office building and long-separated from her husband, Didier, who runs a small clothing store.

When the family goes to the police to report the crime, the movie picks up the pace as Commander Delcour and his unit begin tracking the assailants -- a process made difficult by the fact that Fofana is first running operations from the Ivory Coast, where he switches out cell phones and burners to make tracing nearly impossible. To lure the criminal in, Delcour and negotiator Farrell instruct Didier to take charge of the bargaining, prompting several intense scenes where Elbe portrays a father caught between the desire to give in to the kidnappers, and the obligation to follow orders that don’t always seem reasonable.

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Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of 24 Days is how it depicts the strain involved when placing your trust, and your son’s life, in the hands of officials whose methods are not necessarily foolproof nor always logical, even if they are meant to be experts in handling such situations. The push-and-pull between Didier, who follows the police, and Ruth, who never really trusts them, creates a drama that parallels that wider cat and mouse chase between the cops and Fofana’s gang -- who initially sequester Ilan in a banlieue apartment until moving him to a subterranean boiler room, where they deprive him of food and inflict physical torture on him as the negotiations start to go sour.

The other intriguing aspect, which sparked turmoil within the police department and French government once the ordeal ended, was Ruth Halimi’s insistence that the brutality of this specific kidnapping was due to the fact that Ilan was Jewish. (At one point, she makes a comparison with the 2002 abduction of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.)

Indeed, as the film reveals in the confessions of gang members after they were arrested, as well as in Fofana’s numerous anti-Semitic rants, it seems clear that what originally was a foolhardy attempt at extortion gradually turned into a despicable hate crime -- one pinpointing how France continues to suffer from tensions between black, Arab and Jewish communities, although several of the “barbarians” are also shown to be white kids living in the impoverished Paris suburbs.

Despite the many complicated facets of Halimi’s ordeal, Arcady still manages to deliver a slick and streamlined film that remains engrossing until the end, even if the overall result is somewhat marred by his tendency to underline certain moments with a thick magic marker. But the polished production package, highlighted by somber widescreen lensing by Gilles Henry (In the Courtyard), with 2nd unit scenes directed by Alexandre Aja (Piranha 3D, The Hills Have Eyes), ultimately make 24 Days a highly watchable, if highly disturbing, account of a sad episode in recent French history. 

Production companies: Alexandre Films, Orange Studio, New Light Films

Cast: Zabou Breitman, Pascal Elbe, Jacques Gamblin, Sylvie Testud, Eric Caravaca, Syrus Shahidi

Director: Alexandre Arcady

Screenwriters: Alexandre Arcady, Emilie Freche, Antoine Lacomblez, based on the book by Ruth Halimi and Emilie Freche

Producer: Alexandre Arcady

Executive producers: Catherine Grandjean, Claude Fenioux

Director of photography: Gilles Henry

Production designer: Tony Egry

Costume designer: Eric Perron

Editor: Manu de Sousa

Music: Armand Amar

Sales agent: Kinology

No rating, 110 minutes