Regionally based filmmaking is a relatively new trend in France, with a very few notable exceptions. Prominent among them is Marseille’s Robert Guediguian. Guediguian is an old hand whose newest film, opening this week, is “Army of Crime,” the 16th feature in a directorial career that began almost 30 years ago.
Guediguian’s films are like great family parties, their casts filled with the same friends and relatives over and over, shot on the same locations in his hometown of Marseilles. His best work combines the warmth and sense of community of Jean Renoir, as well as the underlying melancholy and fatalism that also is a component of Renoir’s best work, with Marcel Pagnol’s slightly sentimental but charming love of Marseilles. Coming from one of the most multicultural of French cities, Guediguian celebrates the rich bouillabaisse of “French” culture with the result that he is probably more appreciated outside the country than within it.
That paradox underpins “Army of Crime,” a neo-classical thriller about the World War II Resistance that focuses on the important role of outcasts in confronting the Nazis and their French collaborators. Previous films on the subject, even a masterpiece like Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows,” to which Guediguian pays tribute in more than just his choice of title, have suggested that resistance to the Fascists was a universally French phenomenon.
But the Resistance fighters in this film are Jews, Armenians, Communists, veterans of the Spanish Civil War; it is more an army of orphans than anything else, outsiders who are defending the honor of France when “true” Frenchmen won’t.
As in his best work, Guediguian structures “Army” around a series of characters whose lives are gradually intertwined by their choices and actions. In a sense, the film is about the creation of a surrogate family unit peopled with those whom history has stripped of their blood kin. The filmmaker’s heart is clearly with Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian), a poet and would-be pacifist who ends up as a commander of a Resistance unit and who is, like the filmmaker himself, an Armenian. But Guediguian really builds his narrative around an entire community rather than a single protagonist.
When the film is focused on that vibrant collection of interlocking friendships, amours and partnerships, it is a tapestry woven of the finest human fabric, filled with keenly observed gesture and a graceful choreography of social ritual. Regrettably, “Army of Crime” is too often distracted from that world by the necessities of its narrative. It’s not so much that Guediguian isn’t a good action director — the film isn’t really built around big action set pieces, and what little he shows is briskly competent. Rather, his deeply motivated characters are perhaps a bit too aware of their own nobility and sacrifice.
As a result, the best moments are ones that involve secondary characters whose willingness to sacrifice for a cause can be downright surprising. And one senses that the film’s Parisian settings have stifled Guediguian’s boisterousness. “Army of Crime” is an honorable failure, but a disappointingly stodgy one.
“Army of Crime,” directed by Robert Guediguian, opens Friday, Aug. 20 at the Quad Cinemas (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-8800 or visit www.quadcinema.com. The film also screens Aug. 21, 22, 24 and 26 at the JCC in Manhattan (334 Amsterdam Ave.) (646) 505-5708.