I can only assume that Days of Glory (IFC Films), the English-language title given to the French/Algerian/Moroccan co-production Indigènes (Natives), is meant ironically. There couldn’t be anything less glorious than the fate of the North African soldiers who fight alongside the French army in this WWII epic—unless it was the treatment they got after the war was over. For over 40 years, the French government froze the pensions of African veterans at a level far below those paid to their French counterparts. The release of Days of Glory was a political event in France, where the film spurred the French government to recognize the contribution of its former colonies in the war. After viewing Days of Glory in a private screening, Jacques Chirac proposed raising the pensions of surviving foreign veterans.
In the United States (where it’s being released nationwide after being hustled into a few theaters last year for an Oscar-qualifying run), Days of Glory is more likely to be received as an old-fashioned war picture than as a call for corrective action. The film’s conventional narrative structure hews to the classic war-movie formula that I complained about in this year’s “Movie Club” (introduce infantrymen in a few early training sequences, only to kill them off brutally one by one in battle). But the element of colonialism makes the familiar story fresh. What does it mean to lay down your life for a nation that has exploited and occupied your own? Is it true, as one character states after a decisive battle, that “If I free a country, it’s my country”?
Days of Glory gets at these tricky questions in part by assigning each of its main characters a different stake in the fight. Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is the rabble-rouser of the unit, a firebrand who—in one of the film’s best scenes—stomps on a crate of fresh tomatoes rather than see them rationed out only to white soldiers. He’s at once the most patriotic of the bunch and the quickest to react to any hint of injustice or xenophobia. Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), a clown-faced naïf who enlisted to escape dire poverty, is the unit’s Radar O’Reilly, hopelessly loyal but not quite bright. And Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) is a brilliant marksman but lukewarm soldier, not above going AWOL to visit a French woman (Aurélie Eltvedt) he met on leave.
Sgt. Martinez (Bernard Blancan), the men’s French commanding officer, is a rigid martinet with a complex relationship to his largely Arab unit. He uses Saïd as his personal valet, then turns on him fiercely when Saïd discovers that Martinez’s mother was an Arab. Yet when the men’s loyalty is questioned by higher-ups, Martinez aggressively rises to their defense. He also lobbies for their promotion—but when a young French officer is given a post that Abdelkader clearly deserved, he lets the injustice pass without a word.
Beat by beat, the film touches on all the archetypal war-movie themes: courage, loyalty, fraternity, sacrifice. But the performances are so passionate and the characters (even minor ones) so deftly sketched that it’s impossible not to get swept up. You watch the battle scenes from behind your hands, just praying that these guys make it. It doesn’t hurt that the director, Rachid Bouchareb, manages to stage the big battles—particularly the climactic shootout in a near-deserted Alsatian town—so that we know precisely what’s going on at every moment, strategically as well as psychologically. An unnecessary and sentimental coda straight out of Schindler’s List shows a surviving veteran at a war cemetery 60 years later, lingering over the graves of his fallen comrades. We didn’t need that last poke in the ribs to remember their bravery. The movie itself is memorial enough.
Grbavica (Strand Releasing) is a movie even less well served by its title than the generically named Days of Glory. That word, unpronounceable and barely readable to non-Slavic audiences, is the name of a neighborhood in Sarajevo that was used as a torture camp by the Serbian army during the Yugoslavian war. The word has a forbidding and depressing sound, hinting at a grim slog of a movie. But Grbavica is a surprisingly vibrant, at times even joyous, study of the way life goes on even after the most intolerable suffering.
Set in the present day, Grbavica follows a single mother, Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), living with her 12-year-old daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic), in Sarajevo. Esma works by day in a shoe factory and takes on sewing jobs for extra cash. When Sara needs money for a school field trip, she asks her mother to procure a certificate proving that her father died as a shaheed (a martyr in the war), which would allow her to take the trip for free. Instead, Esma takes on a third job as a waitress in a gangster-run nightclub to earn the money herself. Gradually, Sara begins to suspect that her mother is hiding the truth about her past.
Mirjana Karanovic, a familiar face from the films of Emir Kusturica (Underground, When Father Was Away on Business) is a superb actress—an Anna Magnani on slow simmer. The scenes in which she attends a women’s group-therapy session and listens as a singer croons an old folk melody suggest whole chapters of back story without a word of dialogue. Mijovic is indelible as sullen tomboy Sara, and first-time director Jasmila Zbanic’s script is admirable in its economy. She alludes to the horror of living in a former war zone in the simple details of the characters’ daily lives. Daring to speak for the first time to an attractive co-worker (Leon Lucev), Esma ventures, “Didn’t I see you at a postmortem identification?” It’s a pickup line no one should ever have to use. But Grbavica, like its heroine, is brave enough to try to find love among the ruins.