SIFF Review: Rebellion (L’Ordre et la Morale); dir. Mathieu Kassovitz (France, 2011)

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Rebellion (L’Ordre et la Morale)
France, 135 minutes
Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz
Starring Mathieu Kassovitz and Iabe Lapacas

Rebellion, which is being shown during the 38th Seattle International Film Festival through this weekend, opens on the scene of a brutal military crackdown taking place in a lush, tropical jungle. American audiences will be shocked to learn that images so clearly typical of a third world anti-colonial struggle are actually faithful recreations of events that occurred on French soil in the late 1980s. The film is set in New Caledonia, a tiny cluster of islands in the Pacific that are to this day, legally speaking, every bit a part of the French Republic as the Champs-Élysées or the Arc de Triomphe. In 1988, on the eve of an historically close French presidential election, separatists drawn from New Caledonia’s native people, the Kanaks, took a group of French police officers hostage. Rebellion is not a documentary, however. Director Mathieu Kassovitz explores the events surrounding the crisis through the eyes of one character, Capitane Philippe Legorjus, who takes the role of hero in what’s structured as a relatively traditional thriller.

Rebellion’s lead, Legorjus (played by Kassovitz), is a police officer in charge of hostage recovery at the GIGN- France’s elite counter-terrorism police. Legorjus and his team are called into action to free the captured gendarmes, but upon arriving on New Caledonia are greeted by a massive military contingent charged with the same mission, and pursuing it with troubling tactics. Legorjus puts his faith in modern police procedure- strict constitutional limits on the powers of authorities, and using negotiation and trust-building to work towards a peaceful resolution. This outlook quickly puts Legorjus and his officers in conflict with the military authorities on the island, who are pursuing a full-on counter-insurgency against a presumed-hostile population. Meanwhile, back in Paris, politicians further complicate the crisis by using it as a proxy for the electoral battle royale raging on the mainland. As the events and other players consistently put his peaceful solution further out of reach, we follow Legorjus as he struggles against the tide.

Despite its basis in fact, Rebellion is shot and structured like a conventional Hollywood thriller. Building tension is the hallmark of the genre, but Rebellion opens on the aftermath of a military assault on the Kanak separatists; all through the film, we know Legorjus’s negotiations and political balancing act are in vain. This saps some of the urgency from the action, (but the filmmakers were left with little choice, given that the French public is already familiar with the outcome). Rebellion is at its best when it lingers on the big questions; the film has sophisticated insights on the complexities of dealing with political violence in a democratic society, and the nature of colonialism and state power. What’s usually the meat of a film — characterization, action, and plot — at times feel like a distraction from the much more interesting discussion of these larger issues.

Rebellion’s themes and French colonial setting draw inevitable (and instructive) comparisons to Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece The Battle of Algiers. Pontecorvo solved many of these problems by eschewing traditional plot framework and character development to embrace a documentary-like aesthetic and structure. Instead, Rebellion is neither fish nor fowl: a thriller that’s low on tension, and a docudrama that leaves us wanting to know more about its historical setting and philosophical arguments. But the film still has much to recommend it, beautiful cinematography, a fascinating setting, a strong, subtle performance from Kassovitz, and a thought-provoking take on universal moral questions.

The bottom line for SIFF audiences: Rebellion is a flawed but satisfying film that’s more likely to provoke thought than sweaty palms.

Rebellion may be seen on Wednesday, May 23rd at the Pacific Place Cinema and Saturday, May 26th at the Everett Performing Arts Center

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