“Army of Crime” is not entertaining. It’s informative, bleak, harrowing and even exciting in some cases, but it’s never entertaining. It’s a given that a film which deals with a subject matter as distressing as this would not be an enjoyable experience, and as such the film does succeed, but on its own merits, and in a different way.
“Army of Crime” focuses on the true story of a varied group of Communist Jews living in France during World War II, and their subsequent formation into a vigilante resistance group. It’s an engaging story and offers up a gourmet platter of morality that is tackled from as many different angles as possible from director Robert Guédiguian. It’s understated rather than sensationalist, and it works better this way, as to elaborate to a great extent would mar the realism inherent in the story.
However, with this understatement comes under-excitement – courtesy of the stilted pacing, which bogs down much of the first half of the film. Obviously character development is a necessity in a film that contains so many varied and important central characters, but “Army of Crime” spends just a little too long exploring our antiheroes. Some characters are explored when they really required only a little examination, and accordingly the crux of the film is reached just a little too late.
The heart of which I talk is the acts of indirect vengeance that are carried out by the eponymous gang. These sequences are by far the most interesting and exciting elements of the film and some rather exhilarating set-pieces are achieved – which luckily work not only as thrilling cinema, but also as techniques by which the audience can sympathise with the characters and their plight.
Talking of sympathy, the moral questions offered by the film allow the viewer to make their own decisions as to whether what the group are doing is just. They are centrally framed as the good guys, but some of the acts in which they are involved are reprehensible by any standards. It’s this chief ethical core that proves Guédiguian’s worth as a director (and Taurand and Le Péron’s as writers) through the balanced handling of the actions of each central role – for they are given consciences on both the right and wrong side of virtue.
Luckily, it’s not only behind-the-scenes that these complex characters are constructed – as the acting is impeccable on every front. Simon Abkarian as the sole Armenian of the group (and its leader) is a stand-out player and even if there are one or two discrepancies with his character arc – he still emerges as a tightly-wrought yet empathetic protagonist. For me the other lynchpin was Robinson Stévenin as the rebellious Marcel Rayman, as his afflicted yet optimistic temperament was expertly portrayed throughout.
However, even though the film has elements that should turn it into a masterpiece, it falls short of phenomenal. The main reason is down to the less-than-swift pace and the first half’s meandering nature. It takes far too long to get going and could cause a few to turn off before it shifts into gear – but to do so would be wrong, as what should comprise the middle part of the film actually occurs nearer the end. This essential part of the plot consists of a number of daring and improbable attacks on the German occupation and includes a short but effective daylight assault on a bus-load of Nazi soldiers. However these are not the breathtaking and elaborate action set-pieces akin to “Saving Private Ryan” or even the similar “Defiance”, but rather subtle and realistic depictions of the horrors of war. The realism is coupled with the film’s shocking and unflinching depiction of violence, with a horrendous torture sequence resulting downright difficult to watch. After the late-middle, we are finally witnesses to a traumatic conclusion that proves that there are never any happy-endings when war is concerned.
Guédiguian’s reluctance to stray towards one country as either the bad or good guys is also refreshing – he even delves into and subsequently deplores the French police’s sympathy with the German occupation and their help in sending many French Jews to concentration camps. Overall, “Army of Crime” is a brave film that although thoroughly involving (eventually) never quite reaches the level of five-star greatness. Compensation exists however, in the form of the flawless performances and the nuanced direction and script-writing. Worth a watch for those interested in this most interesting yet regrettable moment in the history of the world.
The R2 DVD comes with an interview with the director, a trailer and some footage of the cast at Cannes.
Robert Guédiguian (director) / Serge Le Péron, Gilles Taurand (screenplay)
CAST: Simon Abkarian … Missak Manouchian
Virginie Ledoyen … Mélinée Manouchian
Robinson Stévenin … Marcel Rayman
Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet … Thomas Elek
Lola Naymark … Monique
Yann Trégouët … Le Commissaire David