Reel Life: Flick Pix
Bringing the world’s attention to anti-Semitic crime in France
By Nora Lee Mandel
24 DAYS (24 JOURS)
Directed by Alexandre Arcady
Produced by Catherine Grandjean and Claude Fenioux
Written by Antoine Lacomblez, Emilie Frèche and Arcady, based on 24 Days, The Truth about the Death of Ilan Halimi by Ruth Halimi and Frèche
Released by Menemsha Films
France. 108 min. Not Rated
In French with English subtitles
With: Zabou Breitman, Pascal Elbé, Jacques Gamblin, Sylvie Testud
Eric Caravaca, Syrus Shahidi, Alka Balbir, Tony Harrisson, Olivier Sitruk
Matthieu Boujenah, and Olivier Barthélémy
24 Days helps an American audience put into alarming context what only grabbed our attention intermittently, early this year with the hostage-taking and killings of four Jews in a kosher supermarket in Paris, last year when a Frenchman shot visitors to the Jewish Museum in Brussels, and another killed three children and a rabbi at a Toulouse school in 2012. Some 241 violent anti-Semitic acts were reported last year in France, twice as many as the previous year, according to the SPCJ, the country’s equivalent to the Anti-Defamation League.
But in 2006 most Americans were not aware of the first notorious incident that marked the start of this most disturbing phenomenon in Europe since the Holocaust, making this methodically step by step closely realistic docudrama, filmed in the original locales, as tensely suspenseful as it is shocking.
The Halimi family gradually comes together for a typical Shabbat dinner. The mother Ruth (Zabou Breitman) leaves her secretarial job and shops for items her children would enjoy, then her teenage daughter Yaël (Alka Balbir) helps her cook in the kitchen, and an older brother stops by with his wife and toddler. Her shaggily handsome 23-year-old son Ilan (Syrus Shahidi) comes home from his job at a mobile phone shop and works his own phone to set up his social activities for the evening. With his girlfriend and best friend busy, he’s open to an invitation to meet up at a café from the pretty woman he recalls flirting with at the store.
But their relaxed weekend explodes when a frantic friend of Ilan’s calls about an email notice that Ilan has been kidnapped. With a photo of the bound and gagged young man with a gun to his head and a demand for 450,000 Euros, they all panic. Her ex-husband Didier (Pascal Elbé), who owns a small clothing store, is perplexed that they could be targeted. Confused when they get another call – in what will soon be hundreds and hundreds -- now demanding a hundred thousand Euros, they go to the police in desperation. Just as calm Police Chief Delcour (Jacques Gamblin) brings in a coolly experienced negotiator Brigitte Farell (Sylvie Testud, who recently starred in La Rafle (The Round Up), about French complicity in the Gestapo round-ups), the film flashes back to let us know this is not the typical kidnapping the police presume as they methodically check Ilan’s contacts. That cute girl in the phone shop got into a car with a question for the driver: “How can you tell he’s Jewish?” The ringleader was casing the block: “The store closes on Saturday, so they’re all Jews.” An additional flashback shows her luring Ilan to the place where three men attack him.
The almost 700 phone calls are nerve-wracking and inconsistent, with different demands and ever more violent and profane threats, ratcheting up the family’s tension and helplessness. Some calls are traced to Ivory Coast in Africa – where we start to see that the ringleader Fofana (Tony Harrisson) has family and smuggling connections. The anxious mother thinks their wording indicates Islamists, but the negotiator is skeptical: “Why would Al Queda be after a phone store operator?” The police commander is firm about not giving into ransom demands, but any attempts to deliver money fail anyway. When the mother learns the kidnappers have also sent a letter to a rabbi to publicize “A Jew had been kidnapped”, she is emotionally haunted by Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping in Pakistan four years earlier, even as the father scoffs at the comparison. As seen in André Téchiné’s Girl on the Train (La Fille du RER) 2009 fictionalized version, the police had just gotten nationally embarrassed by a girl’s false accusation of an anti-Semitic incident and cautiously ignored the references, even as the mother gets more and more insistent about this clue.
The police effort focuses on internet cafés and spot checking for ID’s – but their miscommunications help Fofana slip by them several times, and the film shifts (a bit awkwardly and inconsistently) to his young motley crew, who call themselves “The Barbarians”, and are mostly differentiated by age and how little or much they gleefully torture. Ilan is hidden in the depths of a dense apartment block, of the kind that the French call “cités”, full of immigrants, minorities, the unemployed, and drug dealers. They eat take out, while the bound and gagged Ilan whimpers from fear and hunger. “Can’t that Jew shut up?” complains one, and kicks him into silence. Over the days, others take turns beating him, and then even worse. There are plenty of intimidated witnesses when the gang drags him from an apartment to the basement half-way through his ordeal (though, unfortunately, there’s no day countdown on screen) – but no one tells the authorities in a neighborhood that the police have been avoiding since riots just a few months earlier. French director Alexandre Arcady, whose 15 earlier films were not distributed in the U.S., makes these scenes almost as effective as Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Secuestro Express (2005), one of the most realistic of the South American kidnapping movies, which emphasizes that the French were inexperienced in handling such crimes.
Before seeing this wrenching film, most Americans won’t be familiar with the outcomes for the victim, the police, the perpetrators, and the French Jewish community that are difficult to watch, the case of Ilan Halimi was cited in Tablet Magazine’s recent insightful five-part series on France’s Toxic Hate as a key marker that woke up a nation to the targeted terror in its midst. While Ruth Halimi’s memoir that is the basis for the film is not yet available in English, her courageous public, and prescient, insistence that her son’s kidnapping and torture were virulently anti-Semitic will now be loudly heard beyond France.
While continuing theatrical and festival runs, the film is now available on such platforms as: iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Playstation Network, Xbox Live and VUDU.
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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