Watching the Cannes Un Certain Regard opening film Father and Soldier (Tirailleurs) directed by Mathieu Vadepied was a struggle. I didn’t know that France was kidnapping men from their colonies and forcing them into war (which I am a bit embarrassed to admit). Sitting in the theater, I expected to learn, but between the presented ideas and the lack of strong execution of said ideas, make Vadepied and Olivier Demangel script feeling hollow and inauthentic. They cram in so many details instead of finding a focus and expanding from there.
The film starts with Bakary (Omar Sy) and Thierno (Alassane Diong)in their home country of Senegal where they work as cowherders. They are aware that the French military has been kidnapping young Senegalese men and sending them to Europe to fight for France in World War I. As they try to escape the draft, they are caught and forced to leave their family for a war they didn’t sign up for.
From the first day they arrive in Europe, Bakary is constantly seeking a way out, but with no money they are stuck. Lieutenant Chambreau (Jonas Bloquet) takes Thierno under his wing and begins to indoctrinate him to believe that fighting for France is the best thing he’ll ever accomplish. Bakary knows this is a dangerous move and tries to protect his son and keep him grounded but eventually loses his influence over his own son. Now he must do whatever it takes to keep Thierno from dying on the battlefield so they can return to the family they left behind.
There are remnants of Edward Zwick’s 1989 Civil War drama Glory in Vadepied’s film as it tells a similar story of Black troops during the American Civil War in how they were sent to die on the front lines of war because their lives were deemed less valuable. Certain moments and shots reminded me of the film. If Zwick was an influence, why didn’t Vadepied copy those same emotional cues for Father and Soldier?
The script doesn’t allow its characters to process the effects of the kidnapping trauma, and when it is mentioned, it’s done so matter of factly. There is no exploration of the severity of French imperialism, no further analysis about the unknown soldiers of the war who turns out they mostly be Africans. Instead, the story makes room for frivolous and bizarre conversations about sleeping with white women and how much they care about another country’s war. Sy and Diong are giving the best performances they can muster, but still feel static and are incapable of eliciting emotions from an audience due to the limitations of the story.
To be fair, the sound design is really the saving grace of this film and does more to create an immersive experience than the script does. The crisp clean sound is the only consistent thing the movie has going for itself. Every explosion, click, and pop is not only heard but felt.
Father and Soldier is what happens when good ideas are squandered in favor of one dimensional storytelling. I am almost impressed with how the script so easily glosses over these important elements. France has such a sordid history of colonization that has divided nations and destroyed families–that is material ripe for cinematic analysis and should be handled with grace, and truthfulness. Hopefully, there will be an abundance of films about this subject in the future that will be handled by creatives who can elevate it to a high emotional plane.
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