I knew almost literally nothing about ARMY OF SHADOWS before I sat down to watch it. I had bought the Blu-Ray because I'm trying to watch more movies that are "good for me"...so I've been gobbling up Criterion releases.
Well, even though they've had a few selections that I haven't been too excited about, ARMY OF SHADOWS fits squarely into the successful pile. It's the slow-paced yet strangely riveting tale of the early days of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. It introduces us, in a seemingly haphazard fashion, to a variety of members of the group. While the focus is squarely on the high-level Gerbier (played in masterful fashion by Lino Ventura), we meet quite a variety of folks. The movie begins as Gerbier is being driven to prison. He's introduced to us as a mild-mannered, dry-humored man who looks like an accountant. He's actually an engineer, and despite his politeness and his very slow pace...he's a man of action, as we learn during his rather daring escape.
As we learn more about Gerbier and the folks working with him, we also begin to understand the challenges these brave people face. When one is caught, the immediate fear is that this person will be tortured and give up names of other members. How they deal with their own is at the heart of much of the film (in fact, we don't really see anyone engaging in any real resistance, per se). One of the most remarkable sequences revolves around how Gerbier and his cohorts handle a traitor in their midst. The scene is slow and steady and calm...yet what happens is almost unbelievable for the men involved and fills the viewer with a sense of dread and a deeper understanding of what it means to live a dangerous double life.
I hesitate to describe any more events of the film. I found it to be a fascinating and revealing look at the central characters, even though we get to know almost nothing about them. We must learn about them through their actions (or lack thereof) as well as their attitudes. There is almost no backstory. These ordinary looking men and women are matter-of-fact heroes. They bear no resemblance to the WWII heroes of most movies we know, whether modern or old. They feel like real people displaying real bravery. Bravery that has them doing things they know are crazy...we can almost feel some of the characters ready to panic and run...but they hang in there and do what they must.
Yet the pervasive mood of the film is of sadness and impending doom. Each character has some degree of a fatalistic attitude. Every day is a gift, but every day is also another 24 hours to live in dread of being caught, tortured into betraying your allies and then death.
The film is very well made and although in color, the hues are mostly gray and a gray-blue. The Blu-ray is gorgeous...all the subtle shadings and shadows (so important to the film and the title) are caught. The pace is slow and director Jean-Pierre Melville spends lots of time showing his characters doing mundane things (like getting a shave or eating a sandwich) and then he zips through things we might normally describe as "action." It has the effect of making the movie and its characters feel all the more real and lived-in. But the film is nearly 2.5 hours, yet in contradiction to the slow pacing, actually felt shorter. It was that engrossing.
As I said, Lino Ventura is exceptional as Gerbier. It is a minimalist portrayal, nothing that would ever garner awards attention...but it is powerfully effective. He is ably assisted by a cast that includes Simone Signoret as Mathilde...perhaps the coolest operative of all. At the midpoint of the film, she concocts an escape plan that plays out in excruciating real time...some of the tensest moments of any film. Signoret is terrific in her role.
By the way, the final few minutes of the film, where Gerbier and HIS boss must make a terrible choice, are gripping and shocking. In a calm, measured way we are shown the brutality of being in the Resistance.
The only fault I really find with the film is that it assumes we know history. I suppose in 1969 (when the film was made), the people of France understood the Resistance and DeGaulle pretty well. But for an American viewer who was admittedly somewhat ill-informed...I would have liked a little backstory. In fact, we are barely told that we're seeing France during the time of the occupation by Germany. We must know these things already.
Also, the bonus features of this film are exceptional, even for Criterion. I did not watch them all yet, but there is great stuff on the director, the film and even on the French Resistance, including an interesting documentary made by Resistance filmmakers during the war itself. Criterion has done a splendid job of bringing the definitive version of this lesser known classic to English-speaking audiences. I heartily recommend the film and the Criterion version thereof.