By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Days of Glory,” Weinstein Company, 2006]
Days of Glory
The French film “Days of Glory,” about a group of heroic North Africans who overcome systematic racism and oppression to help liberate France during World War II, reminded me of the American film “Glory,” about a group of heroic African Americans who overcome systematic racism and oppression to help the North during the Civil War. Curiously, “Days of Glory” is not in any way a translation of the film’s original French title, “Indigènes,” a derogatory term for the African soldiers in the French army. Maybe the title was changed to specifically invoke the earlier movie, and to relate it to a struggle American audiences could relate to.
That’s important, because “Days of Glory” assumes a level of knowledge about the war, about the racial issues within France and their colonies, that most potential American audiences won’t have. That the Africans receive prejudicial treatment is obvious and never in doubt, but I’d be curious to know (and the movie doesn’t explain) how these colonies were related (socially, economically, culturally) to France, and why their subjects felt such loyalty to a place they’d never been and that treated them as if they didn’t exist, even after they helped to free them from oppression.
Like “Grbavica” (reviewed below), the factual specifics are always more interesting than the fictionalized plot, which features a climactic battle and epilogue straight out of “Saving Private Ryan.” Accordingly, the most interesting character is the one who has the richest subplot beyond the battle scenes. His name is Messaoud (Roshdy Zem) and when his platoon lands in France, he spends a night with a beautiful French girl (Aurélie Eltvedt) who treats him as a man and not a subordinate. When the troops move again, he has to leave her behind and spend the rest of the film wondering why she isn’t sending him the letters she promised. Initially, we think the girl isn’t good to her word, but later we learn the French government censored their letters (and refused to tell her his whereabouts) out of sheer racism.
“Days of Glory” often feels like a history lesson and, like a lot of history lessons, it’s a little dry. Still, my opinion of “Days of Glory” is largely irrelevant: after viewing the film French President Jacques Chirac overturned a law that had kept colonial soldiers in World War II from receiving pensions equal to those of their French brethren, an incredible reversal that ended decades of mistreatment. So to say that “Days of Glory” is perhaps more important than it is good, or to note that it is a uniquely French experience (just as, perhaps “Glory” is an American one) does not matter. The movie has already changed the world for the better and is now as much a part of history as a retelling of history. At that point, everything else is pretty much gravy.
Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams
The title is tougher to pronounce than it looks, and it looks pretty tricky. Grbavica pronounced like “Gruh-BAH-vich,” I think is the name of a neighborhood in Sarajevo inhabited almost entirely by women, with several generations of men seemingly erased from existence by the decade of strife in Bosnia. The survivors work and live off tiny pensions they get at a community support group, and raise their daughters alone.
Such is the case for Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) and her tweenage child Sara (Luna Mijovic), both very well cast for physical resemblance. Kids have become something of a taboo subject in Grbavica (“Only fools have children these days,” someone warns) but Esma and Sara are quite happy we meet them in the midst of a spirited mother-daughter tickle fight before they’re nearly torn apart by the revelation of some of Esma’s closely guarded secrets. Of course, the secrets aren’t really guarded all that closely, and most audience members will be able to guess what they are long before they’re revealed on screen. But if the film’s central mystery isn’t all that compelling, the setting of “Grbavica” often is.
I’m not an expert on contemporary Bosnian life, but I imagine that the world presented in “Grbavica” by first-time writer/director Jasmila Zbanic is authentic to the one she knows and has lived in. The scenes at the women’s support group are particularly haunting though they are frequently silent; Zbanic often has the women sit and lets the camera pass over their faces, which say more than enough about where they’ve been and what they’ve seen. I suspect casting these roles was both difficult, in that they’d call upon the actresses to relive the things that have happened to them, and easy, because there was almost certainly no shortage of women who qualified for them. Karanovic is a fine actress who stands out during her character’s darkest moments and who blends in with the rest of the survivors when seated amongst them.
Small, observed details are often more powerful than the rather heavy-handed machinations of the plot. The way Zbanic’s camera glides over Esma’s scars, the way the citizens of Grbavica casually drop nuggets of horror into their conversations only 11 of 41 original classmates will be attending a class reunion, for instance shows how inured they’ve had to become to tragedy in order to survive. Zbanic’s subject matter is thoroughly feminine; “Grbavica” exists in a near vacuum of masculinity and shows how the women react to the few men who are left. “You’re all animals!” Esma says at one point to describe the male population of Grbavica and within the confines of the film it’s often hard to disagree with her. Most of the men left in Sarajevo are thugs or gangsters; even Sara’s sheepish first boyfriend is a thug who is waving a gun in her face even before they’ve ever kissed.
In one scene, Esma has a picnic with a potential suitor on top of a hill, the entire town laid out beneath them. It would be a gorgeous view, and quite a romantic moment, if the Bosnian weather weren’t so oppressively gray that it obliterated the visibility of everything except the foreground. Grbavica may be a land of dreams, but those dreams are not about sunny days. As this scene suggests, “Grbavica” isn’t a bleak movie, but rather a movie about finding hope and beauty in a bleak world.