Review: The Breitner Commando
- Intense violence, cruelty, ideals and betrayals run rife in screenwriter-cum-director Abdel Raouf Dafri’s first feature film, which follows a commando on a mission at the height of the Algerian War
On one side of the coin, there the sense of duty, discipline, the national flag ("when you decide to make a career out of the army, you have to put your heart to one side"); on the other, there’s the madness and the barbaric nature of war ("because we don’t like it, we kill them")… Taking up position behind the camera for the very first time, at the helm of The Breitner Commando [+see also:
film profile] (released in French cinemas today by Mars Films) - a genre film delving into the abundantly grey zones of the Algerian war - screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri (known for A Prophet [+see also:
interview: Jacques Audiard
interview: Jacques Audiard and Tahar R…
film profile], Mesrine: Part 2 – Public Enemy #1 [+see also:
film profile] - the second instalment of a cinematic two-parter - and the series Braquo) sought to mix the psychological noir which typifies Heart of Darkness with the red hot heat of an action film; to create a work which looks to settle old scores, but which also moves along the lines of a suspense-filled visual feast. But in his commendable desire to give a maximum of information without losing any of the film’s furious pace, the neo-filmmaker ultimately takes narrative shortcuts and sculpts archetypical characters whose credibility is wholly reliant on the quality of his actors. Clearly, not everyone can be Francis Ford Coppola! That said, it’s not all bad: intensity junkies will feel at ease with the twists and turns of the commando mission at the heart of the story, while history enthusiasts will enjoy piecing together the 20th century ups and downs in France’s relations with its colonies.
It’s 1960 and the Algerian war has been raging for six years. It’s a conflict characterised by massacre, where torture and humiliation are an everyday part of life for the French paratroopers who scour the Aurès Mountains, looking to flush out the hardened rebels of the FLN. Indochina War veteran Lieutenant-Colonel Breitner (Belgium’s Johan Heldenbergh) is hoisted out of retirement by the influential mother of a missing officer (Olivier Gourmet). She obliges him to embark upon a perilous mission: "bring me back something that belonged to him, that I can put in his coffin (…) In six days, the napalm will have destroyed everything." Brought along for the ride is the woman Breitner shares his life with, Soua Ly-Yang (Linh-Dan Pham), who belongs to Vietnam’s Hmong ethnic minority, along with three other teammates recruited in Algeria: the Senegalese staff sergeant Senghor (Steve Tientcheu) who has killed one of his superiors, racist soldier Martillat (Pierre Lottin) and Assia (Lyna Khoudri) an FLN prisoner and bomb specialist ("come with me and your mother will live"). And so, the commando follows along the trail which leads towards the rebel group spearheaded by Mourad (Salim Kechiouche)…
Incisive and very well imaged, as if a classic of the genre, by director of photography Michel Amathieu, The Breitner Commando is faithful to its action film checklist, but it suffers from an excessive agenda, especially amplified by the unconvincing nature of Assia’s character. These are major flaws, but they shouldn’t overshadow what is otherwise an interesting and daring approach, which picks without compromise at the still open wounds of a painful decolonisation conflict, as made clear by the film’s epitaph: "this film is dedicated to the Algerian people and to the 1.5 million young French people who were conscripted and re-conscripted against their better judgement…"
(Translated from French)
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