The Marchers (La Marche): Film Review

Courtesy of EuropaCorp
A sincere but uneven comedy-drama about an anti-racism march in 1983 France.

Belgian-born director Nabil Ben Yadir's ensemble period film stars Tewfik Jallab, Jamel Debbouze, Hafsia Herzi, Lubna Azabal, Olivier Gourmet, Vincent Rottiers and Charlotte Le Bon.

PARIS -- A 930-mile march against racism that took Mitterrand-era France by storm is convincingly recreated 30 years later in The Marchers (La Marche), from Belgian-born director Nabil Ben Yadir (The Barons), even if the film itself is uneven.

A modest if motley crew of nine started a trek across France in October 1983 in Marseilles that would culminate in a demonstration of support in the French capital of over 100,000 people the following December. The film’s message of equality is loud and sincere but Yadir, here directing his second feature, struggles to maintain a workable entente between the downbeat story -- which starts with French police shooting an innocent Maghrebi youngster and contains off-screen killings for racist motives -- with misplaced-feeling broad humor. At 125 minutes, the story also contains too many repetitive detours to continuously captivate.

However, the local market’s familiarity with the events and an impressive roster of talent that, besides French-Moroccan standup God Jamel Debbouze, also includes Hafsia Herzi, Lubna Azabal, Olivier Gourmet, Vincent Rottiers and Tewfik Jallab, should arouse at least some curiosity in France, even if wider crossover seems unlikely in the film’s current shape.

After being successfully paired with Jamel earlier this year in Homeland from Mohamed Hamidi (incidentally a comedy-drama mix that had a much better sense of dosage), rising French star Jallab reunites with his co-star here and anchors the large ensemble as Mohamed, a second-generation immigrant from the Minguettes banlieues of Lyon who is shot in the chest by French cops when he tries to save Hassan (Debbouze) from a police-dog attack.

Back from the hospital, two buddies, including the Walkman-addicted Sylvain (Rottiers), suggest they get back at the policeman but instead Mohamed proposes a plan inspired by Martin Luther King and Gandhi (Richard Attenborourgh’s film had just been released): Walk across France to give visibility to their frustration at being considered dangerous because of their skin color and start a conversation with locals everywhere to demand equality and put an end to racism. The Muslim boys conspire with a local priest, Christophe Dubois (Gourmet), who helps organize the march's logistics and convinces the kids' mostly conservative parents that this is a feasible idea.

Besides Mohammad, Sylvain, Hassan and Dubois, the marchers of the English-language title include the outspoken Kheira (Azabal, from Incendies); her niece, university student Mounia (Herzi, The Secret of the Grain), who becomes a love interest for Sylvain; Claire (Charlotte Le Bon), a semi-closeted photojournalist; Yazid (Nader Boussandel, from The Barons), an ex-convict who has problems controlling his temper and who’s hopelessly in love with Claire, and Farid (M’Barek Belkouk), an overweight, unsure young man who pens letters to Gandhi about his experiences on the road. A cantankerous-but-lovable French owner of a cheese van (Philippe Nahon) drives along with them.

What the small dozen of walkers encounter along the way is largely predictable: infighting, bad weather, injuries and rednecks that confirm their worst fears about the country they live in and most of the marchers were born in -- a detail most racists keenly overlook. Initially, their initiative seems modest and unnoticed but after they hear about a Maghrebi youth who died after being beaten and thrown out of a train window, and as they encounter more and more injustice on their march, the group becomes more politically demanding and active. 

But the screenplay by Nadia Lakhdal and the director is often unsure how to switch gears between the individual stories and overall group dynamics and character development is somewhat schizophrenic, such as when a scene in which Kheira bluntly shouts that Dubois, as a white Catholic, can’t speak for "them" (essentially a racist accusation), is followed by Kheira’s impassioned anti-racism speech at a public gathering. There are moments when the characters' emotional and relational growth and their growing political awareness are too compartmentalized to feel organic and Jamel’s turn as the farcical village idiot feels entirely out of synch with the film’s very serious undertow.

Ace Belgian cinematographer Danny Elsen, who also shot The Barons, more fluidly moves between individuals and the group and his color-drained, handheld lensing offers a welcome sense of immediacy. Period recreation is impressive, with Emmanuelle Youchnovski’s costumes period appropriate but never attention-grabbing and Johann George’s production design especially impressive in the final reel, when large crowds swarm Paris to show their support.

That the film is an at least partially fictionalized version of events is signaled by the filmmakers’ choice to rename all the characters.

Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 27 (in France)
Production companies: Chi-Fou-Mi, EuropaCorp, Kiss Films, Entre Chien et Loup
Cast: Tewfik Jallab, Jamel Debbouze,
Hafsia Herzi, Lubna Azabal, Olivier Gourmet, Vincent Rottiers, Charlotte Le Bon, Simon Abkarian, Philippe Nahon, Nader Boussandel, M’Barek Belkouk
Director: Nabil Ben Yadir
Screenwriters: Nabil Ben Yadir, Nadia Lakhdal
Producer: Hugo Selignac
Director of photography: Danny Elsen
Production designer: Johann George
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Costume designer: Emmanuelle Youchnovski
Editor: Damien Keyeux
Sales: EuropaCorp
No rating, 125 minutes