The Army of Crime -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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CANNES -- Just when you might begin to think that there is absolutely, positively nothing more to be said about the Holocaust, along comes the formidable Marseille filmmaker Robert Guediguian with "The Army of Crime" to wring one more excellent variation out of that overly familiar if always powerful theme.

His subject is the real-life "army" of foreigners (non-French Jews, communists, veterans of the Republican forces fighting against Franco in Spain, anti-fascist Italians, and so on) who mounted an ongoing, organized, and effective resistance against the Nazi occupation in Paris. Though it drags here and there and is a bit flat in places, the film is solidly made and for the most part quite involving. It should do well in theatrical release in territories around the world, and even better in ancillary venues, especially television and DVD, given the huge, never-satiated world-wide audience for films about World War Two. Festival programmers should also give a close look to this film, which performs admirable educational duty by dramatizing for the first time a largely untold story.

The only well-known actor in the cast is Virginie Ledoyen, who plays the devoted wife of the informal leader of the group, the Armenian poet and worker Missak Manouchian (brought to convincing life by Simon Abkarian). The standout performance, however, is that of Robinson Stevenin, who plays, with startling intensity, Marcel Rayman, a Polish Jew who loves killing German officers up close, after bumming a light for his cigarette.

There is very little in the way of Hollywood-style dramatic build-up here, and the film's power comes largely from the underplayed, super-fast bombings and assassinations that regularly punctuate the narrative. Since these are also real people, there is a large, convincing space left to pesky domestic concerns that of course always occupy a large part of everyone's time, even when there's a war going on. Guediguian has taken great pains to make each character highly individualized and completely convincing.

What's also missing here--and happily so--is the star power and oversized scale of most Holocaust films (the most recent example being Tom Cruise in "Valkyrie"). Obviously working on a very limited budget, Guediguian keeps his camera focused on interiors, street corners, and nondescript alleyways, to the extent that one barely realizes that one is in Paris. But this too paradoxically adds to the novelty and believability of the film.

Nor does Guediguian spare his countrymen, constantly pointing out how eager the French authorities were to please their Nazi masters, beyond the Germans' most ardent wishes, with a steady supply of French Jews gathered at Drancy and the infamous Vel d'Hiv, dropping off points for Auschwitz.

By the end of the film, the Nazis and their French collaborators manage, through torture and betrayals, to round up these heroic partisans. They then embark on a public relations effort to question the bona-fides of these so-called "liberators" that made up what the Nazis themselves christened the "Army of Crime" in an effort to cast doubt upon their heroism. Twenty-two men and one woman were executed in February 1944, and just a few short months later, Paris was liberated for good.

Festival de Cannes -- Out of competition
Sales: Studio Canal
Production companies: Agat Films, Studiocanal, France 3 Cinema

Cast: Virginie Ledoyen, Simon Abkarian, Robinson Stevenin, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Lola Naymark, Yann Tregouet, Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin
Director: Robert Guediguian
Screenwriter: Robert Guediguian, Serge Le Peron, Gilles Taurand
Director of photography: Pierre Milon
Production designer: Michel Vandestien
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Juliette Chanaud
Editor: Bernard Sasia

No rating, 139 minutes