Before dawn one morning in Dombey, France, 1944, seven Jewish men are rousted from their homes and executed by the Vichy regime’s Milice police force. Hand-held cameras catch the flavor of bullying and confusion during this abduction. An officer puts a finger to his lips and tries to calm a distressed woman; it will be all right, he says. Then he leads the captives to a stone wall where they are lined up and shot in their backs.
The Milice officer who gives the order is Pierre Brossard, played in the film’s present, 1992, by Michael Caine. Escaping punishment at the end of the War, he lives under an assumed name, finding refuge within a network of abbeys. Each stay coincides with the regular arrival—via letters addressed care of local bars and cafés—of a stipend from the mysteriously powerful and well-connected order of Catholic chevaliers to which he belongs. (Although Brossard is fictional, the slaughter of seven Jews did take place as depicted on 29 June 1944; Paul Touvier, the presiding Milice officer and an inspiration for Brossard’s character, was the sole Frenchman eventually convicted of crimes against humanity.)
Forced to go on the run following an attempt on his life, Brossard seeks help from a former Milice superior. At the same time, Judge Anne-Marie Livi (Tilda Swinton) and Army Colonel Roux (Jeremy Northam) undertake to prosecute Brossard as a war criminal; Livi is especially interested in exposing the elements within the government and the Catholic Church who have protected him. Time is suddenly of the essence, however, because the would-have-been assassin (whom the strangely earnest Brossard will later claim he murdered “in self-defense”) seems to have belonged to a vengeful Jewish group presently suspected of sending another killer to finish the job.
Adapted by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) from Brian Moore’s novel, Norman Jewison’s The Statement is a rarity: a serious, politically-minded thriller. The film shows as much interest in questions of justice and mercy as in a taut rooftop escape scene shot on location in the South of France. Without allowing themselves the easement of moral relativism or the self-righteousness of outrage, Jewison and Harwood have constructed a film that speaks to a post-9/11 mood of uncertainty. The film never denies that Brossard deserves punishment, but also never forgets his humanity; Caine’s vulnerability makes an otherwise appalling character pitiful, if not empathetic. Livi and Roux acknowledge as much when they consider what a sad, lonely man he must be after more than 40 years in hiding.
Caine’s performance emphasizes Brossard’s melancholy and his impenetrable (if hypocritical) faith. “How do you know what my faith means to me?” he asks his estranged wife Nicole (Charlotte Rampling). The question recalls Caine’s fine work since his Academy Award-winning performance in The Cider House Rules (1999): Fowler (The Quiet American, 2002), Jack Dodds (Last Orders, 2001), and now Brossard, remain compelling, enigmatic figures.
Brossard seems, in his words, “truly repentant” at one moment, deadly the next. He begs his confessors for absolution, swearing that to die in a state of grace is all he desires, but the first question from his lips as he moves from safe-house to safe-house is, more often than not, “Will I still get my monthly payment?” You almost feel sorry for this old man, gasping for breath and fumbling for his heart medication, but then you recall that he’s panting and sweating because he just pushed a car off the edge of a cliff after shooting the driver three times.
Unfortunately, devoting so much time to Brossard leaves little for the other characters. This is most evident with respect to Nicole, who shares brief scenes with Broussard. She returns home from work to find that he’s broken in and has locked her dog in the bedroom. Their taut exchanges ricochet with accusations, denials, and intimations of additional crimes buried in Brossard’s past. He threatens her dog should she refuse to shelter him, and Nicole cannot break from Broussard entirely. When he wakes from a nightmare, howling and sweating, she soothes him. It’s clear she’s afraid of him, but one wonders whether sorrow itself keeps these two together.
Similarly, The Statement avoids a conventional will-they-or-won’t-they subplot for Livi and Roux, but they are given at least one sly exchange, as they prepare to share a makeshift bedroom for the evening: “So, Colonel,” says Livi, “We finally get to sleep together.” “Never thought you’d ask,” he responds. The syntactical inversion of that old saw, “I thought you’d never ask” and Northam’s amused pronunciation, turned over like a cocktail olive on his tongue, combine to suggest that, for all its heavy themes, The Statement has its lighter moments.
But the conspiracies concerning Brossard form the movie’s sustained focus. Church and state both claim preeminence, and levels of authority shift constantly. Does a search warrant grant Livi and Roux the right to search a monastery, despite Prior’s invocation of asylum? Can a reluctant Cardinal, after refusing to comply, be forced to answer questions regarding the Church’s role in Brossard’s shadow life?
Hundreds of suspected war criminals, not only in France, were hidden from the authorities after the Allied liberation of Europe, many with the complicity of Catholic clergymen (an operation the scope of which many presume has yet to be revealed). Others were surreptitiously awarded positions in the post-War government. (Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon, named Paris’s police prefect after being inducted into the Legion of Honor in 1948, is a notorious example.) While The Statement doesn’t probe deeply into the French clergy’s alleged anti-Semitism, it an ethically-minded investigation of a historical incident perhaps unfamiliar to American audiences.