Monday, January 12, 2015

INTIMATE ENEMIES (L'Ennemi Intime, 2007)

France has had a problem with Muslims dating back to the Battle of Tours, when Charles Martel repelled Islam from the high-water mark of its eighth-century incursion into western Europe. A millennium later, France was on the offensive. The conquest of Algeria began in 1830. For France it became a true colony, a place for French people to settle in and virtually an extension of the French homeland. The war for Algerian independence began in the 1950s. I would call it France's Vietnam except that France had its own Vietnam before we Americans did. Yet the Algerian conflict arguably caused even more trauma in France than the Vietnam conflict did in the U.S. In France, reactionaries conspired to overthrow the government rather than accept negotiations leading to Algerian independence. Despite their fury, independence came in 1962.

At one time, we might have been expected to root for France in the conflict and see them as the standard-bearers of civilization and modernity. Today, we're more likely expected to root for the Algerians because, after all, it was their country. Yet Florent Emilio Siri's L'Ennemi Intime finds little to choose from between the French and the FLN or the fellaghin fighters in the countryside. On this film's evidence, Algeria endured not so much a war for independence as two factions of thugs battling to rule a passive majority without caring much for them. Intimate Enemies has no heroes, though it may seem reactionary in its refusal to concede much moral ground to the Algerians. Both sides commit atrocities on both small and large scales, torturing individuals and massacring entire villages. The civilian villager is forced to choose between terror and terror and pays dearly for the wrong choice. Islam has little to do with it all, from what we can tell, since the FLN, like many Third World insurgencies of the era, were secular and socialistic. In time, they would have to deal with a true Islamist insurgency against their "people's government," characterized by the same sort of massacres we see in the movie. Siri's film shows terror stripped of its religious trappings and its nationalist romance. It's a powerful anti-war film for that reason.

Intimate Enemies has a conventional story at its core: the new, green officer arrives in the "forbidden zone" and has his ideals shattered by the savagery of counterinsurgent warfare. The contrast between naivete and ruthless realism isn't absolute, however. The new lieutenant succumbs to the temptation of terror, while the hard-headed sergeant (a Vietnam vet) feels an empathic guilt that drives him to subject himself to the same torture he inflicts on the enemy.

The film really lives up to its title in its portrayal of Algerians fighting alongside the French. We're reminded that many fighting for and against France in 1959 had fought for France -- Free France, that is -- during World War II. The most detailed and complex of the Algerian characters is Danoun, a scarred veteran of the assault on Monte Cassino in Italy. He's an irreconcilable enemy of the fellaghin because the insurgents massacred his village and his family. When the French respect a captured fellaghin who had also fought at Monte Cassino, Danoun, who had struck up a friendly chat with the prisoner earlier, shoots him in the back when the French officers are willing to let him go. Nothing else matters than his current grudge against the fellaghin, yet he proves something of a coward in battle conditions, and when the sergeant orders him at gunpoint to crank up the electricity so the sarge can experience torture, Danoun seems as much tortured by fear and anguish as the sergeant is by the voltage.

While Danoun remains loyal throughout, other natives waver. One seemingly reliable scout seems to go over to the fellaghin, apparently disgusted by a napalm strike, only to be tortured and left for the French to finish off for mercy's sake. A boy becomes the sole survivor of a massacre by fellaghin by hiding in a well; rescued by the French, he becomes a mascot for our main characters, only to turn fellaghin after witnessing another massacre, this time by the French, and the torturing to death of an old man by the once-idealist lieutenant. None of these characters seems imbued by any overriding national consciousness. Each has all too personal reasons for choosing or switching sides. The French, of course, have no choice of sides, though one of our main soldiers chooses another option to quit the war altogether. For French and Algerians alike, the war is a personal ordeal, traumatically different if not unique for each fighting man. Flags and slogans offer neither solace nor escape.

Nearby Morocco substitutes for Algeria and offers Siri and cinematographer Giovanni Fiore Coltellaci an epic landscape against which to shoot their intimate war drama. Siri stages some decent action scenes emphasizing the chaos and panic of guerrilla combat as nature in the form of trees or sheep gets in the way of the combatants. The acting ensemble is solid with Mohammed Fellag as Danoun the standout performer. In some ways L'Ennemi Intime is a generic war film, very much like an American Vietnam film without the jungle or the rock soundtrack. But seeing a generic story in a fresh setting can help us see the whole genre with fresh eyes. The Algerian war is so unfamiliar to most global viewers that Intimate Enemies seems less like a generic war film or a transplanted 'Nam film. That allows us to see war here the way the auteurs see it, and few war films I've seen from any country emphasize as strongly as Siri does how each soldier, despite being part of an army and representing a nation, is morally and psychologically on his own.

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