Army of Crime (L’Armée Du Crime), (15), Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle.
BASED on a true story, French director Robert Guédiguian’s taut drama opens in wartime Paris with 22 arrested resistance fighters about to face a firing squad.
As we see in the final scenes, all of them – after being paraded in front of the media – are executed in that one afternoon.
In the film’s intervening two hours and 19 minutes, what could have been left just a footnote in history is, 65 years on, revealed layer by layer to be an extraordinary story of a brave, yet futile, battle on several fronts.
This people’s army is made up of a bunch of immigrants, including Armenians, Jews, Italians and Spaniards, treated by many of the French themselves as outsiders.
And the unsavoury truth is that the enemy here is as much the French police as the Nazis.
At the heart of Guédiguian’s film are three men: young Jews Thomas Elek (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and Marcel Rayman (a compelling performance from Robinson Stévenin) – aged 20 and 21 when they died – and Armenian poet Missak Manouchian, the pacifist turned killer who becomes their leader.
Simon Abkarian who, it turns out, actually looks very like Manouchian, is equally convincing as a man of dignity and humanity – in scenes with loyal wife Mélinée (Virginie Ledoyen) – as he is the single-minded ringmaster of the business of bombing and assassination.
As tension builds in occupied Paris, lingering scenes of ordinary family life are thrown into sharp relief by random acts of sudden violence, prompting a furious backlash from the Nazis through use of collaborator local police – including Jean-Pierre Darroussin’s chilling moral corruption of an apparently ordinary officer in Inspecteur Pujol.
‘Army of crime’ was apparently the phrase used on propaganda posters to present a picture to the public of resistance fighters as criminals.
Here, the public opinion fight sees neighbours turn on immigrant tenants. It’s not like we don’t know how it all ends but that doesn’t stop us flinching at the coming doomed outcome of such idealism, daring and self-sacrifice.
A small human tragedy, perhaps, echoing what was going on – a huge scale human tragedy – yet the roll-call we hear of the names of the resistance fighters, including plus one woman, serve as end-credits we remember.
Army of Crime opens at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, today.