Don't look to Jean-Pierre Melville's low-key 1969 thriller Army of Shadows to romanticize the French resistance. Despite having himself belonged to the resistance, Melville refuses to cast the film's freedom fighters as matinee idols or noble martyrs carrying out spectacular missions that turn the tide of war.
An overlooked classic, Army of Shadows (being shown as part of the Charlotte Film Society's "Second Week" series) instead honors their heroism by capturing the dread, hardship and isolation they endured. The likes of civil-engineer-turned-network-leader Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) live under the constant threat of arrest and admit scarcely any human emotion or contact beyond their cause. Their suicide capsules are their best friends.
Melville earned renown for his early 1960s film noir and heist films like Bob Le Flambeur, and he crafted Army of Shadows for both suspense and fatalism in a style that suggests a more sedate Alfred Hitchcock. Melville lets scenes draw out in stillness and silence, the characters' anxiety shown only in their eyes (if that), until release comes with a shock. One escape from Gestapo headquarters builds almost placidly to an unnerving outburst of violence.
Another sequence expresses the resistance's challenges and dilemmas in miniature. Gerbier and two of his cohorts bring a traitorous third member to a safe house and grapple with the best way to kill him without being overheard by the neighbors next door. They weigh the nature of "execution" vs. "murder," and even though the traitor doesn't beg for his life, his fear and guilt are palpable. Army of Shadows' story loosely strings together similar episodes that hinge on how much the resistance should sacrifice, and how far they should go, in the cause of Free France.
At times, Melville steps back from his narrow focus on Gerbier to consider the scope of the conflict. Early in the film, Gerbier spends time in a Vichy prison camp, and he takes an internal, informal census of his fellow inmates -- representatives of seemingly the rest of Europe, brought together by their abhorrence of Nazi Germany. The story sags a bit when the plot swings Gerbier to England and back, and his first-time parachute drop, while expertly conveying his nervousness, appears to involve the kind of model airplane you usually see strafing Godzilla.
Never before released in the United States until late last year, a restored print of Army of Shadows opens at art houses, ironically, at a time when America is currently fighting an insurgency in Iraq. Using the film to force a parallel between World War II and the Iraq War would cheapen its power, but Army of Shadows still communicates, in grave, compelling terms, the dedication and desperation of men and women who fight a losing battle in the name of their home. Their example should not be taken lightly.
Old Joy A high pick on many critics' top-10 lists for 2006, this variation on a Sideways theme about two men veering off course in the midst of a major life change is a poignant, heartfelt character study. Pot-smoking post-slackers Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) head off for an impromptu camping trip in the Oregon woods. It becomes a kind of symbolic goodbye to youth as Mark prepares to become a father and Kurt mourns how their friendship will inevitably change. Director Kelly Reichardt's deeply satisfying film features remarkable performances, an honest portrait of our sad, politically apathetic times and an equally plaintive, sweet soundtrack by Yo La Tengo. -- Felicia Feaster
Requiem Based on the allegedly true story that also inspired The Exorcism of Emily Rose, this German drama centers on a college student whose violent seizures convince her that she's been possessed. -- Unscreened
(Army of Shadows, Old Joy and Requiem open this weekend at Park Terrace as the March lineup for the Charlotte Film Society's "Second Week" series. For more information, go to www.charlottefilmsociety.com.)
April's CFS Schedule
The Aura Before his fatal heart attack last summer, Argentinean writer-director Fabian Bielinsky completed his second feature film -- and first since his 2000 art-house hit Nine Queens. This one's about an introverted taxidermist who realizes his dream of committing the perfect crime.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu Like Old Joy, this Romanian import landed on numerous "10 Best" lists for 2006. A scathing attack on health care, it follows the travails of an ailing senior citizen (Ion Fiscuteanu) who's shuffled from hospital to hospital throughout the course of one long night, as nobody in the medical profession knows what to do with him.
Gabrielle French writer-director Patrice Chéreau, best known for his excellent period drama Queen Margot, adapts a Joseph Conrad work (The Return) about a letter that ends up straining the relationship between a married couple (Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory).
-- Matt Brunson