Sous nos drapeaux que la Victoire
Accoure à tes mâles accents!
Que tes ennemis expirants
Voient ton triomphe et notre gloire!
— “La Marseillaise”
“The army means equality.” At the start of Indigènes (Days of Glory), Corporal Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) believes his service will be rewarded. It’s 1943, and he and his fellow North Africans have joined the French military to gain the freedom of the motherland, even though none has actually seen France.
Assembled hastily from French colonies and barely trained, the troops comprise the “types” familiar from many U.S. World War II movies, including the newbie, the romantic, and the hardcore warrior. This generic structure is strategic, for the film is exposing French hypocrisy in the treatment of North African recruits, who were welcomed as fighters (and, to an extent, fodder) on the battlefield but not considered “equals” in any way. According to French-born director and co-writer Rachid Bouchareb, the film was conceived in part to argue for the reinstitution of pensions for African and Asian WWII veterans (on the day of the film’s opening in France, such legislation was passed).
Algeria’s nomination for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, the film offers a plainly passionate politics, rendered primarily in the stories of four North African Arab soldiers. From their first moments on screen, the men appear doomed — whether they live or die, their experiences will be dire, their lessons learned devastating. Indigènes underlines such purpose with transitions between years and locations (their several missions take up years and covers continents) indicated by shadows looming over broad landscapes. In Algeria 1943, young Saïd (Jamel Debbouze) first appears as he says goodbye to his mother, even as she begs him to reconsider: “Be reasonable!” she wails, “Your grandfather never came back.” As the inexperienced Saïd and other soldiers gather to receive their orders, they declare themselves “the men of Africa.” Two Moroccan Berbers Yassir (Samy Nacéri) and his younger brother Larbi (Assad Bouab), arrive on horseback, skilled warriors eager to define their own legacy: they carry a particular burden, as their parents were massacred by the French, during a campaign that Yassir ruefully remembers was deemed “pacification.”
When Abdelkader arrives at camp, French officers are surprised to learn he has earned the rank of corporal: this means he can read, and moreover, has passed an exam (“In that uniform,” he reassures Saïd, “You’re like me, you’re like all of us”). The French Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan) distrusts Abdelkader immediately, as he’s a sign of the potential for equality the sergeant cannot abide. Announcing their first mission against the “Krauts,” he instructs his corporals to “take out a cigarette” should they sense what he calls “trouble.” Abdelkader looks at him, wondering. “Before you light it, it’ll be over,” says Martinez, even as the gesture will “reassure the lads behind,” facing certain death.
The first battle does levels the field, in multiple senses. Alternately observed from an extreme long shot (where everyone looks like ants, falling one after the other) or close-ups (bloody limbs, burning flesh, wide eyes), the scene reveals that combat offers no “glory,” but instead, trauma, fear, and a kind of fierce survivalism. Explosions and gunfire rip bodies apart: thrilled just to stay alive, Yassir reassures his fearful brother, then takes after a German corpse with his bayonet. Abdelkader stops him, instructing, “We’re soldiers, not savages.” While the corporal means to maintain a level of decorum in order to prove their “equality,” he and his men soon find that the French can be savage, in their bigotry and entitlement.
During this first battle, Saïd is terrified, nearly killed, and grateful when Martinez saves him; thereafter, the sergeant makes him his aide, which means the younger man will be brewing coffee and holding a shaving mirror during downtimes. Only as he witnesses overt instances of prejudice and exploitation does Saïd begin to recognize the problems of this relationship, in part a function of Martinez’s increasingly visible pathology, seemingly personal, but produced within and by a longstanding social and political order.
Following this first shocking battle, the men are dispatched to France for leave, their voyage the occasion for a standoff between Martinez and Abdelkader over racist divisions of food on board the ship: the “wogs,” as Martinez calls them, are not allowed to eat tomatoes. “We must share the tomatoes too, sir,” insists Abdelkader. “German bullets don’t pick and choose” (this point emphasized by the many, many bodies visible in the previous scene, as the soldiers buried their dead). When the captain takes Abdelkader’s side on the issue (in the closed space of the ship’s mess hall, they surrounded on all sides by North African troops, poised to hear the captain’s judgment), Martinez’s face turns hard and red. He’s hardly appeased when the entire company begins to sing “La Marseillaise.”
On leave in Provence, another version of the threat posed by the indigènes’ bodies and desires becomes visible (the term translates to “natives,” and has been used as a racist slur): miscegenation. Expert marksman Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) meets the very beautiful and very Caucasian Margueritte (Mélanie Laurent), who pledges her love to him even as he must return to battle in Vosges and Alsace. Their many letters, however, never find one another, as the military censors confiscate them, thus allowing each to fear the worst, that the other has been killed or perhaps worse, reconsidered the complications of an interracial love affair. Reductive, and again, familiar, this subplot motivates repeated images of Margueritte seeking information from impassive military clerks and Messaoud begging the mailman to check his sheaf again.
While the war brings on hope for new lives and égalité, it is more often terrible and traumatic. Facing bad choices all around, the Arab soldiers struggle with their loyalties, at one point, solicited by Nazi leaflets inviting them to “cross over” to a nation that will welcome them as “brothers.” Wearied by battling on so many fronts, Abdelkader observes, “We’re fighting for France, fighting for freedom around the world. It’s high time they gave us some of that liberty.” As each man comes to terms with his limits and hopes, the film keeps sight of the broad context with which they must all contend. The finale, a veritable tableau of loss and frustration, is hardly surprising. The outrage, however, remains raw.