Guédiguian is best known for modern-day, Marseilles-set films such as ‘Marius and Jeanette’ and ‘My Father is an Engineer’, but he is half Armenian and was latterly involved with the French communists, and this second of his historical films, after 2005’s ‘The Last Mitterrand’, turns out to be just as personal as his more ‘local’ ones, despite the grand period canvas on which it unfolds.
It focuses on the guerilla efforts of the ‘Manouchian group’ – a unit of Paris-based communists and immigrants who helped the armed struggle against Nazi occupation. Heading this unit with some initial reluctance was the Armenian poet Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian) who directed a band of Jews, Hungarians, Poles and others to sabotage Nazi rule. What this film describes is the radicalisation of Manouchian and his comrades and the execution of their mission – a fatal mission, as we know from the 22 names heard over the opening credits to the refrain of ‘Mort pour la France’.
The title is a double nod – firstly, to the nickname given to Manouchian and his colleagues after they were executed in 1944 and, secondly, to Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 masterpiece ‘Army of Shadows’, a film which dramatised with cold brilliance the rituals of the French resistance. But while Melville suggested that all of France was resisting or supportive of the resistance, Guédiguian adopts a more nuanced stance. By dramatising the efforts of the Francs-Tireurs, the leftist resistance, he dispels the myth of a unified, Gaullist resistance – an assumption that was first and most powerfully exploded in cinema by Marcel Ophüls in his 1969 doc ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’.
Dramatically, though, Guédiguian doesn’t live up to Melville, who condensed the spirit of the resistance to a tense drama of few personalities. Guédiguian, meanwhile, calls on a rambling ensemble to serve the many points he has to make about wartime France and why people did – and did not – join the resistance, from stressing Manouchian’s memories of war in Armenia and the motivations of French Jew Marcel (Robinson Stévenin) after his father is deported, to the idealistic communism of young Hungarian Thomas (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and the self-serving collaboration with the French police of young Jew, Monique (Lola Naymark).
The breadth of Guédiguian’s story is sometimes at the expense of dramatic momentum, but nobody could accuse him of over-simplification. His film is always fascinating and is a crucial, stirring addition to the cinema about wartime France.