I saw this film a month ago and have been intending to post something on it. Now seems like an appropriate moment, in view of the identity of the murderer of the Jewish schoolchildren and teacher in Toulouse, and of the soldiers there and in Montauban. At first I figured that the perpetrator was a neo-Nazi but as it turns out he’s a 24-year old beur of Algerian origin named Mohammed, has an apparently lengthy police record for petty crime, is a salafist and jihadist, and has had a couple of stints with Al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He sounds like a character straight out of ‘La Désintégration’.
The film, directed by Philippe Faucon—who also did ‘La Trahison’ (good) and ‘Dans la vie’ (less good)—, is set in a cité in a lower class, heavily immigrant/Maghrebi quarter of Lille. The main character, Ali—played by Rashid Debbouze, brother of Jamel—, is in his early 20s, of a Moroccan immigrant family, the holder of a bac pro (vocational high school diploma), and is having great difficulty finding an internship in his trade, whereas his other classmates—Français de souche (i.e. “white” French) or of other European stock—are having fewer problems. Ali, who’s about as typé as you can get—i.e. he looks stereotypically Arab—, is clearly the victim of prejudice and racism, reacts with rage, falls in with a radical Islamist group in the cité, and becomes a fanatic. The film depicts the process by which an otherwise upright, not particularly religious young man is transformed into a jihadist willing to commit a terrorist atrocity. That’s what the film’s about.
The scenario is well-known, as are the characters, all of whom play well-defined roles: Ali, the beur seeking to integrate and lead a normal life but when confronted with discrimination and injustice rejects France and everything French, and becomes an Islamist; Djamel, the manipulative, evil jihadist ringleader, who recruits lost souls into his circle and brainwashes them with his violent, hateful brand of Islam, and who is disconnected not only from French society but from his own community as well; Nasser, the IQ-challenged petty delinquent layabout hiding from the police, who knows almost nothing about Islam but willingly falls under Djamel’s diabolical influence, as his parents have thrown him out of the house and he doesn’t have anywhere else to turn; Hamza, the French convert (Hamza is not his birth name), also IQ-challenged, who’s as fanaticized as Djamel, but too dim to be anything but a foot soldier (and cannon fodder); Ali’s older brother, who is also typé but is perfectly integrated into French society, has a good job, and a Française de souche wife; Ali’s sister, who would not be caught dead wearing a veil and, like the older brother, is integrated into French society; Ali’s father, who’s ill and basically out of it; and his mother—a major character in the film—, a traditional Moroccan woman who speaks to her children in darija (Moroccan dialect), wears a traditional headscarf, and is distraught by Ali’s radical turn, whose interpretation of Islam—all learned from the evil Djamel—is alien to hers. None of Ali’s immediate family members understand him. His brother tries to reason with him, saying that he also suffered from discrimination but that he never gave up, that Ali can integrate into society too if he really tries—as opposed to dis-integrating from it (thus the title of the film). Peine perdue.
Again, these are well-known, almost stock characters. (Based on what is known at the present moment, the Toulouse terrorist looks to be a cross between Ali and Nasser). Pedagogically and as sociology, it’s a very good film. As cinema, it’s good enough, though not without flaws. E.g. we know almost nothing about ringleader Djamel—who is clearly in an organization and with higher-ups—and what his story is—how he got to be the way he is—, or of Hamza the convert, though perhaps it doesn’t matter, as the center of the film is Ali and his family. I was also somewhat dissatisfied with the ending. Again, no big deal. One notes that the screenplay was co-authored by Mohamed Sifaoui, a high-profile Algerian journalist and blogger resident in France, who is second-to-none in his hatred of Islamism (and whose big journalistic coup was penetrating jihadist circles in France undercover and then writing a book about it, translated into English as Inside Al Qaeda: How I Infiltrated the World’s Deadliest Terrorist Organization). Reviews of the film—which has so far only opened in France—were good on the whole. In view of the subject matter there were also commentaries in the press by non-film critics, e.g. here, here, and here. One article interviewed young Franco-Maghrebis in the quarter of Lille where the film was set, who were critical of it on different levels. I don’t yet have a representative sample of reactions from people I know, though the two persons with whom I saw it—my wife (half-Algerian) and a friend (French from a Moroccan family very much like Ali’s in the film)—liked it very much. In fact, my friend was boulversée (blown away) by the film, which rang totally true to her; and she was particularly moved by the mother (who brought my friend to tears while watching the film; it was very close to home for her). Hopefully the film will open before too long in the US, UK, and elsewhere—and reopen in France, where it didn’t do extremely well at the box office—, as it deserves to be seen, and particularly in view of what has happened in Toulouse this week.
While I’m at it, I want to recommend two British films on the subject of radical Islamism in Europe among the alienated offspring of Muslim immigrants. One is ‘My Son, the Fanatic‘ (1997), based on a short story by Hanif Kureishi. This film is first rate and a must see. The other is ‘Four Lions‘ (2010), a spot on parody of low IQ jihadist wannabes. Also a must see.
UPDATE: Le Monde (issue dated 25-26 March) has a full-page interview with Phillipe Faucon. The opening paragraph:
Rarement film n’aura eu un si tragique pouvoir de prémonition. La Désintégration est sorti le 15 février sur les écrans français. Nourri par une longue enquête de terrain, tourné avec un budget modeste, il décrit sans pathos le basculement de trois jeunes de l’agglomération lilloise, Nasser, Ali et Hamza, dans le terrorisme islamiste. Rétif aux explications définitives, son auteur, Philippe Faucon, a préféré réunir un faisceau d’indices éclairant leur passage à l’acte : blessure narcissique, rupture familiale, scolaire ou professionnelle, fragilité psychologique, petite délinquance… Depuis L’Amour, son premier long-métrage en 1990, Philippe Faucon chronique les émois et le désarroi de la jeunesse des quartiers périphériques.
Read the interview here.