Smugglers' Songs: Film Review

Period drama tracing the rise of French revolutionary fervor is stronger in concept than execution.

Rabur Ameur-Zaïmeche, Jacques Nolot and Christian Milia-Darmezin star in Ameur-Zaïmeche's unusual, enthusiastically partisan approach to the French Revolution.

LOCARNO — As recent events across the Middle East show, revolutions don't spring out of thin air. The roots of one of history's most dramatic upheavals, the French Revolution of 1789, are traced in Rabur Ameur-Zaïmeche's uneven though thought-provoking fourth feature, Smugglers' Songs. His unusual, enthusiastically partisan approach to these historical matters represents an ambitious departure for the Algerian-French writer-director after three movies examining current social issues. While he doesn't quite pull it off, there's enough going on to ensure a sustained life on the festival circuit although theatrical exposure outside French-speaking territories is unlikely.

A Gallic Robin Hood-cum-Che Guevara, Louis Mandrin was a folk-hero outlaw in 18th-century France. (Several French movies and TV series have chronicled his exploits.) After his brother's hanging, Mandrin began military-style operations, trafficking contraband from outside France's borders, thus thwarting and enraging the state's vicious, widely despised tax collectors. Mandrin was eventually executed in 1755, an event described at the start of Ameur-Zaïmeche's film.

The highwayman himself never appears here. Instead we follow his organization's surviving members as they stage "one last campaign" in his memory. With financial help from a forward-thinking aristocrat, the Marquis of Levezin (Jacques Nolot), they arrange underground publication of Mandrin's poems and songs, hawking them around market-places as "a framework for the republic." (The film's original title is Les Chants de Mandrin, or Mandrin's Songs.)

Elsewhere, Ameur-Zaïmeche is thankfully subtler about spelling out the tale's future impact, allowing us to muse on the ironies of a Marquis's actions helping bring about the ruling class's violent obliteration. There's a fleeting coda showing Levezin musing in what's apparently the 21st century (automobile lights pass visibly by.) This comes across a botched attempt at auteur-ish ambiguity. Like so much of Smugglers' Songs, the impression is given of a director who’s at his best when he keeps things more straightforward and focused.

By focusing on the less dramatic foreshadowing of earth-shattering events, Ameur-Zaïmeche sets himself a tough task in terms of maintaining our interest. And in his first foray outside contemporary settings, he only intermittently succeeds, hampered by evident budgetary restrictions.

It doesn't help that video is still far from ideal for evoking the distant past, nor that his attention to period detail is distractingly haphazard from the hair and make-up of the women (all peripheral figures) to the modern-sounding dialogue.

As an actor, Ameur-Zaïmeche exudes bluff ruggedness as the gang's unofficial boss. (He's one of several individuals whose Arabic appearance is never remarked upon.) Performance-wise, the film’s trump-card is noted writer/director Nolot, striking perfect notes of genial, patrician charm as Levezin, by far the most complex, intriguing individual on view. He even gets to intone sonorously one of Mandrin's songs in full, a rousing, extended climax presented with powerful directness.

Overall the picture works best as an illustrated thesis examining how charismatic individuals can inspire movements, which explode after their death. Even on these terms though Smugglers' Songs falls short. Ameur-Zaïmeche gives little impression of the wider public discontents to which Mandrin's egalitarian ideals spoke. He shows the first tiny sparks, but not the vast kindling that became a bonfire.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production company: Sarrazink Productions in co-production with Maharaja Films
Cast: Rabur Ameur-Zaïmeche, Jacques Nolot, Christian Milia-Darmezin, Kenji Meunier, Jean-Luc Nancy
Director/screenwriter/producer: Rabur Ameur-Zaïmeche
Director of photography: Irina Lubtchansky
Costume designer: Christiane Vervandier
Music: Valentin Clastrier
Editor: Nicolas Bancilhon
Sales: MK2, Paris
No rating, 97 minutes