Sunday, August 13, 2006

Army of Shadows (1969, Jean-Pierre Melville)

In Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows (L'Armée des ombres), Lino Ventura is Phillipe Gerbier, a member of the French resistance in Nazi occupied France during World War II. As the movie begins, he is being taken to a German internment camp. His captors are two soldiers who are barely less desperate than their prisoner, scraping together whatever provisions can get their hands on as they make their way through the rain-soaked, muddy terrain. Ventura plays Gerbier as a deadly serious, almost expressionless machine with only one purpose to all of his actions. Every thing he does, everything he says, every glance he makes, seems to be directed towards the insurgency he is now a leader of. It is probably not giving away too much in a movie that opens with its main character being hauled off to a prison to confirm that he does not stay captive for very long. Following his escape, Gerbier meets up with his commrades (he's not a communist, "but," he says,"I still can have commrades") and continues moving underground, dodging Nazis, finding sympathetic locals, and testing his mettle as he is forced to commit acts that would have been unimaginable in any other circumstance. The movie contains sequences packed with action and suspense, and Melville masterfully plays with our expectations with a clever script based on a novel by Joseph Kessel. Army of Shadows features some moments that will perhaps require a certain suspension of disbelief, as many good thrillers do, but that ought to be excused so as not to taint an otherwise intense, nerve racking, edge of your seat examination of the sacrifices one makes, and the atrocities one is forced to commit during times of war.

Army of Shadows was never released in the US, and at one time it was thought that the only existing print was aged beyond repair. However, a complete restoration, including new subtitles, has been completed and the long-lost film is currently playing in cities nationwide (see the Rialto Pictures website to find out where and when). Get out and see it in a cinema if you can.

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