Army of Shadows: A Film Discussion Guide


army_of_shadows_1shThe French film L’Armée des Ombres (“Army of Shadows”) is an adaptation of the 1943 book (same title) by Joseph Kessel, who participated in the French Resistance. Whether you know little or much about the Resistance, if you want a realistic film portrayal of a critical aspect of the Second World War, this is a film to rent or buy. I can’t imagine a more effective vehicle for presenting an insider’s view of the movement.

The film is expertly cast and paced with precision. But the action is subdued, so don’t expect a Jason-Bourne-meets-James-Bond kind of experience. Army of Shadows offers a tight shot of espionage—plotting with limited resources, the paltry odds of success, endless psychological misgivings, and complex interpersonal dynamics.

The movie is filled with tension. But it’s the kind of tension that invites serious consideration of difficult questions:

  • What does it really mean to be courageous?
  • Is it possible to exercise genuine freedom of self-determination in the very moment you are about to be executed by a firing squad?
  • Can a cause be so just that killing an innocent co-belligerent is justified if letting her live could compromise the mission?
  • On what basis can you entrust your life to someone you’ve never met?
  • Should a woman with the skills needed to execute a tactically sophisticated and personally dangerous mission be enlisted if she has a husband and children who know nothing of her activities?
  • Does it ever make sense to engage in a fatal rescue operation if no one will know of your valor?
  • Why does the simple offer of a cigarette enable some men to face certain death with dignity?
  • Was the French Resistance a prudent response to the Nazi occupation of France?

This film churns the emotions and the mind. The Resistance is testimony to the indomitable spirit of human beings guided by commitment to a high ideal. I saw  Army of Shadows soon after seeing the Angelina Jolie film Changling. The similarities are unmistakable. Both are based on actual events. In both cases individuals pursuing righteous causes suffer terrible indignities. In both, success seems humanly impossible. Hope wells up from a secret place and keeps men and women in the game, even when the game is almost certainly lost. These are remarkable parallels, parallels I would have missed if I had not seen the two films in the same week.

As these films end and the credits roll, some viewers will be stuck to their seats with feelings of sadness mixed with cheer. The sadness explains itself. The cheer is unexpected. But the cheer is solidly grounded. It rises in response to the failed heroism of Christine Collins, the mother in Changling, and of Phillipe Gerbier, the head of a Resistance network in L’Armée des Ombres. Because the heroism is real, though it is not rewarded with complete success (or perhaps because it is not rewarded with complete success), our own dignity is affirmed.

I’m ususally content to see a movie once, even a very good movie. But soon I’ll be downloading L’Armée des Ombres from Amazon to my TiVo. This one is worth owning and re-viewing.

Amazon DVD

Amazon DVD

Amazon Video on Demand

Amazon Video on Demand

The Book by Joseph Kessel

The Book by Joseph Kessel

Disillusioned Professor Comes to Grips with ‘The Visitor’


He has the perfect name and the ideal job for portraying upper-middle-class disillusionment. Walter Vale is a literature professor at a reputable university in the Northeast. He’s no longer capable of enduring day-to-day encounters with students, and he’s embarked on a sabbatical during which he only pretends to be writing his next book. Will those who see the film The Visitor be able to relate to Walter’s dysphoric existence? Yes, because the role is performed by Richard Jenkins.

“Richard who?” The folks at Back Stage West must have been thinking the same thing. In this week’s issue, Jenelle Riley describes how a “blue-collar actor” like Jenkins (who’s never played a lead role in television or film) can lead in every scene of a low-budget indie film and launch it to nationwide screening. When BSW arrived in today’s mail, I was pleased to see a cover story about this actor, and about this film.

I saw The Visitor when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. I recognized Jenkins, but couldn’t place him. The Riley essay explains why. But I liked him, and I liked this film because of him. He was funny, in that way that only the wearing malaise of life experience can make a thoughtful person funny. When the film ended, writer-director Tom McCarthy fielded questions from the audience. He was good. But Richard Jenkins stole the show.

This film is supposed to be about how injustices can accrue in the treatment of illegal immigrants. It could even be said that The Visitor is making an argument that at least some illegal immigrants should be granted amnesty. Many viewers will find themselves reflecting on this possibility. But the movie is just as much about how a man like Walter can get a new lease of life through his encounter with the unexpected, even if things still don’t turn out the way he would like.

The film begins and ends brilliantly. Walter is a serious man in a serious funk, who teaches us to lighten up a little. The Visitor opens April 11 in a platform release (that is, in a handful of theaters to generate buzz). This is one I’ll be seeing again.

Footnote: You’ll enjoy this film more if you don’t see the trailer first.

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