Friday, November 26, 2010

ADIFF ’10: Prohibited Love

When African American servicemen like the Harlem Hellfighters’ Henry Johnson and Eugene Bullard, the first African American combat pilot, received the Croix de guerre and were hailed as heroes by the French during WWI, word got out back home. As a result, many African American GIs were particularly hoping to liberate the French during WWII. However, even in 1940’s France, race relations are decidedly complicated in Philippe Niang’s Prohibited Love (a.k.a. Les Amants de l'Ombre), a rather cinematic French television movie that screens during the 2010 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Nurse Louise Venturi has been a good wife, loyally waiting for her husband Pierre to return from the war. The occupying “jerrys” have cleared out of town, mere steps ahead of the Americans. Much to the provincial French town’s surprise, when the liberating Yanks arrive, there is an African American company among them. Many of the town’s women are attracted to them as “exotic” foreigners, but not Venturi.

Strangely though, as soon as she moves back in with Pierre’s parents to tend to her injured father-in-law Ange, his letters suddenly stop coming. Simultaneously, Gary Larochelle, a French speaking New Orleanian, makes no secret of his attraction to her, creating a perfect storm of sexual tension.

While Prohibited depicts American race relations with a characteristic sense of French superiority, it also features a fair amount of French prejudice, as well as some hypocritical score-settling by the Johnny-come-lately super-patriotic FFI. In fact, the circumstances surrounding the death of Venturi’s young sister-in-law’s jerry lover, sets in motion a tragic series of events for their entire family.

As the nurse-protagonist, Julie Debazac handles some potentially melodramatic material with nuance and class. While their Anglais is often suspiciously phonetic sounding, Québécois actor Anthony Kavanagh and the French Edouard Montoute have the right swagger of liberating GI’s and an easy-going charm as Larochelle and his comrade Sidney Jackson. Greco-French movie-star George Corraface (best known in America as Christopher Columbus, but also quite excellent in the Greek culinary drama A Touch of Spice) gives a solid Brian Dennehy-esque performance as the salt-of-the-earth Ange, as well.

Though produced for television, Prohibited holds up well as a feature. Although it is hardly subtle, at least it slams France nearly as much as the U.S. As much a revisionist take on post-liberation France as a blistering critique of American segregation, Prohibited is an intriguing film, definitely worth seeing during this year’s ADIFF, where it screens next Friday (12/3) at the Riverside Theatre and the following Saturday (12/4) at the Anthology Film Archives.