Most American filmgoers know auteur Jean-Pierre Melville from his gobsmacking gangster flicks like 1955's Bob le Flambeur and 1967's Le Samouraï. But long before he made the movies that would cause John Woo to shatter his kneecaps genuflecting, he participated in the French Resistance movement during World War II. Melville's 1969 epic Army of Shadows is a defiant tribute to his fellow countrymen who risked everything to try and drive the Nazis out of France as well as a tense j'accuse to those who looked the other way.
Based on the 1943 novel by Joseph Kessel (he also wrote Belle de Jour), Army of Shadows stars Lino Ventura (from ClasseTousRisques) as Philippe Gerbier, who, as the film opens, is busting his way out of Nazi custody after a stint in an internment camp (he's "suspected of Gaullist ideas"). It turns out the kindly, bespectacled Gerbier is actually an effective leader in charge of a cadre of dedicated freedom fighters operating throughout France, and the first order of business once sprung is finding and eliminating the turncoat who ratted out Gerbier. It's a heartbreaking interlude, as Gerbier and his deputies must become the executioners they are so clearly not.
The balance of the gripping Army of Shadows observes as Gerbier's Resistance network tries to stay a step ahead of the Nazis, whether they're negotiating with the British for weapons support or laying out elaborate plans to rescue captured comrades. Gerbier's brave operatives include the dashing Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel, whose son Vincent is now an international star), the loyal Felix (Paul Crauchet, from Melville's Le Cercle Rouge, soon to be remade by Woo), and the clever Mathilde (the awesome Simone Signoret, Les Diaboliques), acknowledged among the men as the most invaluable of them all.
Army of Shadows is just now enjoying its first proper American release, and its stateside unspooling further bolsters the case for Melville's greatness... not that anyone needed more proof. The pacing is taut and deliberate, the performances completely devoid of histrionics in that classic Melville way, and the action often without any actual action. Witness the barbershop scene early in the film: Gerbier has just escaped Nazi custody and ducks into the first illuminated door. It's obvious that Gerbier has something to hide, and we don't know the political leanings of the shop's proprietor as he's carefully tending to Gerbier's neck with a straight razor. It's only through a deceptively simple act that we're relieved of our anxiety. Any filmmaker worth his salt knows that the suspense escalates during the quietest moments, though few filmmakers possess enough restraint to let the silence do the talking.
Approximately one jillion movies have been made in which a person brings their intended home to meet the family. The genders are often reversed, as can be the races and creeds. One detail is always the same, however: the relatives are complete lunatics. The well-meaning Spanish comedy Only Human, written and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Teresa De Pelegrí and Dominic Harari, doesn't stray from this tried-and-true formula but it does incorporate a novel spin: the future bride is Jewish and her fiancé is Palestinian.
Leni assures Rafi that her open-minded family will love him as she does, but once Rafi's ethnicity comes to light in the Madrid apartment much of Leni's kin calls home, the wheels begin to fall off (admittedly, however, they weren't attached too securely anyway). Leni's brother is in the throes of an Orthodox Jewish phase and for some reason keeps a baby duck in the bidet. Grandpa is blind and eager to demonstrate how quickly he can load his rifle. Black-sheep sister Tania has a bratty daughter and possibly an eye for Rafi, while Mom is slowly beginning to believe that her husband's late work hours are indicative of an affair. They may never find out about that last point, however, since Rafi dropped a bucket of frozen soup out of the kitchen window and onto the head of a man who may or may not be Leni's dad.
The script by De Pelegrí and Harari is more than a little ambitious, attempting to flesh out a bunch of characters, make a point about Muslim-Jew tolerance, and convince us to care about any of it, all in under 90 minutes. They're fairly successful, with hit-and-miss slapstick and underlying affection, but it might be a little insensitive in light of current events, especially when Norma Aleandro's frazzled mom wails, "There'll be peace in Israel before your father gives me an orgasm!"
Army of Shadows (NR), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, and Only Human (R), directed by Teresa De Pelegrí and Dominic Harari, both open Friday, August 11, at the Little Theatres.