Jean-Pierre Melville’s somber, critically hailed 1969 drama about the French Resistance, which is getting a one-week re-release in Los Angeles, resonates even more strongly after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.
Melville, best known for his gangster movies “Bob Le Flambeur” and “Le Samouraï,” brings the same coolness to this story, which is his most personal: He was also in the Resistance and lost a brother during the war. The film stars Lino Ventura as Gerbier, who’s just been arrested as the film opens, and Oscar winner Simone Signoret as Mathilde, the organizer whose family doesn’t even know of her involvement.
One of the quiet leaders of the Resistance, about to face a firing squad tells himself, “I am not afraid.” He knows the movement will go on without him, and that even though he will soon be dead, in a larger sense, he will never truly die. And yet the film (which is based on the real-life experiences of author Joseph Kessel) is not about individual heroism or grand gestures: It refuses to glamorize its characters and barely stops to mourn for them. They all must do what they must, whether it’s quietly killing a traitorous member, withstanding interrogation or torture, or making unthinkable sacrifices.
In one telling scene, instrumental member of the underground Mathilde learns her elaborate rescue plan for a colleague will not happen. In disguise as a German nurse, she shows no reaction, merely saying, “I’ll file a report” and bidding farewell with a cool “Heil Hitler,” never betraying herself.
Melville tells the story in much the same fashion: There’s little dramatics, little show of emotion. The pace is agonizingly slow, probably too slow for many viewers, who may understandably lose patience with it. But if you stay with it, the final haunting scenes will have you in tears.
When the movie was released in France, paying tribute to the Resistance was (unbelievably) out of fashion after the Algerian War, as was paying tribute to Charles de Gaulle. The film was only released in the U.S. in 2006, where it made many film critic’s “best of the year” lists and won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Film that year, even though it had been made 37 years before.
“Army of Shadows” plays for one week only: November 20-26 at Ahrya Fine Arts Theater, 8556 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90211 (310) 659-9171
Not rated; the running time is 145 minutes. In French; subtitled in English (German dialogue is not subtitled)