24 Days Dir. Alexandre Arcady

[Meneshma Films; 2015]

Styles: thriller
Others: Break of Dawn, Tell No One

24 Days is a police procedural wrapped around the story of an anti-Semitic hate crime. It tries to be thought-provoking, to highlight the issue of anti-Semitism in Europe, but its slick and sleek cops vs bad guys format does a lot to dull whatever it seems to be attempting.

In 2006 Ilam Halimi, a 23 year old French-Morrocan Jew, was kidnapped in Paris by a group of criminals the French media would eventually dub “le gang des barbares” (the Gang of Barbarians). He was held hostage for 24 days, tortured and starved, while the gang members harassed his family for money. Halimi was released, most likely because his captors realized he wasn’t rich (members of the actual gang later said they would regularly snatch Jews under the assumption that all of them were wealthy), but release for him meant being tied naked to a tree (in real life; in the film the boy is dumped over a guardrail and set on fire), and he died of his injuries shortly after being recovered by police.

This is a brutal story to read about, especially when you start digging deeper into articles about the members of the Gang of Barbarians. Their leader, an Ivory Coast Muslim named Youssouf Fofana (played in the film by Tony Harrison, who looks a few degrees more like the imposing, malevolent movie-villain African than the actual Fofana), has been defiant in videos he’s made in prison; he boasts about his crimes and has called for the murder of infidels around the world, including, before the attack took place, the writers and editors of Charlie Hebdo. There really isn’t any doubt — at least in retrospect — that the brutality Halimi suffered was because of his Jewishness.

Nevertheless, redressing a police and political wrong seems to be what the film wants to be about. There are two broad agendas here. The first is to make the point that the French authorities charged with recovering Halimi were fatally slow to call that was happening a race crime, though it’s never made logically clear exactly how that admission would have turned up the Barbarians more quickly. The second is to turn the story of Halimi’s kidnapping and torture into a fast-paced thriller, and it’s that agenda with which director Alexandre Arcady is most focused.

Halimi’s mother, Ruth (played by Zabou Breitman) is the film’s emotional core, and she brings a lambent ferocity to the not much that she’s allowed to do. Her pain and, eventually, her fight to make people realize why her son was taken, would have been far more affecting if this weren’t a movie that’s really about the nitty-gritty of police spying tactics, stakeouts and psychological brinksmanship on the one hand, and the nitty gritty of torturing young men with duct tape and cigarettes on the other.

24 Days looks good and holds its tension like electricity in a coil, but it’s not heightened by those qualities, it suffers from them. Arcady seems to think that the requisite style of the French police procedural — the crisp blue-silver color palette, the tight framing, the quick cuts, the grim-faced professionals who seem to know the world is fucked but carry on with their tasks anyway, the god-awful throbbing electronic music — will stand in for gravitas. But all he’s doing is pulling off an approximation of seriousness that any director who pays attention to technical details can master. The whole design of 24 Days a distraction from a story that wants to be taken seriously.

I did only cursory reading on this movie before I sat down to screen it, and until just before it began I thought I would be watching a documentary. Given the disjunction between the subject and style, I never stopped wishing that’s what it had been.

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