'The Third War' ('La Troisième Guerre'): Film Review

The Third Ward
Capricci Films
A gritty, nerve-wracking war movie without any battles.

Italian director Giovanni Aloi's French-language debut feature, about a squad of soldiers patrolling Paris, premiered in Venice and recently played Busan.

“We are at war,” French president François Hollande declared in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan terrorist attacks of 2015, rallying his country in a battle cry against an enemy that remained hidden in the shadows of everyday life.

During the months and years that followed — in fact, till this very day — the French army took to the streets in a mission known as “Opération Sentinelle,” protecting the metros, sidewalks, train stations and outdoor markets of the country’s major cities. The sight of soldiers in camouflage, walking in small groups and carrying large assault rifles, has since become an ordinary one in Paris, like a guy selling pretzels on a corner in midtown Manhattan. Yet does this actually mean that the French are, in fact, at war, or are they just pretending to be?

In Giovanni Aloi’s tense and impressive feature debut The Third War (La Troisième Guerre), we follow a squad of Gallic grunts endlessly patrolling the City of Lights, on the lookout for terrorists and other signs of a coming attack. Mostly, though, the soldiers are a bored and unhappy bunch, viewed with derision by the general public while doing the dirty work few of us would want to do in their place. They fight amongst themselves more than they ever fight the enemy, and yet they’re constantly at the ready for the third war promised by the film’s title.

Directing from a script he co-wrote with Dominique Baumard (A Kid), Aloi trails a squadron whose three principal members include touchy young recruit Leo (Anthony Bajon, The Prayer), trigger-happy washout Hicham (Karim Leklou, The World is Yours) and tough but overtaxed sergeant Coline (Leïla Bekhti, Perfect Nanny).

In the stressful opening scene, we see the three of them nervously reacting to a bag left unattended at a bus station, ready to call in the bomb disposal unit. Then somebody grabs it and runs off — he could be a terrorist, a thief or just the actual bag owner — and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Indeed, Aloi constantly shows us how powerless the Opération Sentinelle soldiers are, condemned to a war that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone but them. When they decide to intervene in non-terrorist incidents like a drug deal or a street fight, they’re reprimanded by the police or by their superiors. As Coline has to keep telling them, the world outside of terrorism isn’t their problem, and in return that world tends to forget they exist.

Back at the barracks the tensions rise, especially between Hicham and the other soldiers. Clearly the Private Pyle of the bunch, Hicham wants to prove he’s a true-blooded killer but doesn’t really have the chops for it. “He was in Mali for like 24 hours,” quips another serviceman, referring to the only major combat zone France has known these past years. In one striking scene, Hicham receives a beating at the hands of the platoon bully (Jonas Dinal), then howls like a madman to celebrate his humiliation, blood running down his cheeks like he's a wounded animal.

The squad is under so much stress and seems so completely miserable in their daily rounds, you almost wish an attack would happen to release some of the strain. At one point, we learn that two soldiers in the unit were stabbed during a patrol, in an incident echoing more recent ones involving knife attacks throughout France. This seems to give the others a purpose again as they rally together during a rain-soaked nighttime lineup, only to set out on more pointless patrols that yield them no suspects.

The futility of it all is not lost on some, including Coline, who joined up for career purposes and is doing her best to keep order, while also trying to maintain a relationship with a grumbling boyfriend back home. But for the vulnerable and increasingly unstable Leo, the army was meant to give him a sense of self-worth he could never find in the grim Brittany city he grew up in. When, in one sequence, he returns there on furlough, he gets drunk at a nightclub and brags about his exploits, picking up a pretty girl who leaves the next morning without saying goodbye.

The Third War alternates between such scenes of the soldiers off duty, where they’re searching for some kind of purpose, and ones of street-level suspense where Leo, Hicham and Coline walk in formation through Paris’ rough northeastern districts. Shot with naturalistic verve by Martin Rit (Noura’s Dreams), the patrol sequences give you the feeling that things could blow up at any moment, but as the plot advances it becomes clear that the danger isn't really terrorism but the situation itself — that a society in a perpetual state of war will create victims no matter what.

And so while most of film is devoid of action, and is more about the agonizing lack of action faced by the French army, Aloi brings out the big guns in a third act set during a violent street protest where chaos ensues and the soldiers get caught in the middle. It’s a tensely choreographed scene of surging crowds, tear gas, riot police and, out of nowhere, yellow neon paint that suddenly covers Hicham from head to toe.

“We patrol but it’s like we’re not there,” Leo says early on in the movie, and yet by the time he and the others become visible to the rest of the world, it’s as if they’ve been marked for death.

Production companies: Capricci Films, Bien ou Bien Productions  
Cast: Anthony Bajon, Karim Leklou, Leïla Bekhti Director: Giovanni Aloi
Screenwriters: Dominique Baumard, Giovanni Aloi
Producer: Thierry Lounas
Director of photography: Martin Rit
Production designer: Lisa Rodriguez
Costume designer: Clara René
Editor: Rémi Langlade
Composer: Frederic Alvarez
Casting director: Marine Albert
Sales: Wild Bunch 

In French
92 minutes