Monday, April 20, 2015

24 Days: Abduction as Hate Crime

The savage Charlie Hebdo shootings only just happened on January 7th of this year, but one can already feel complacency re-settling back in, predictably like the turning of the seasons. After all, it was not without recent precedent. The kidnapping and torture of Ilan Halimi was a hate crime that shocked France, but only too briefly. Taking the subsequent book written by Halimi’s mother Ruth as his source material, Alexandre Arcady chronicles the tragic events step-by-chilling-step in 24 Days (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ilan Halimi was a likable young man, who was always close to his mother and sister, but was also rebuilding his somewhat strained relationship with his divorced father in the months leading up to his abduction. Although he simply worked at a cell phone store, a Muslim gang operating in both Paris and Ivory Coast deliberately targeted him because he was Jewish. In their hatred, they assumed all Jews had money. Alas, the Halimis were rather lower middle class with little ready cash on hand. Therefore, they had little choice but to alert the police.

The police’s secret involvement will be both a curse and a blessing. Initially, the negotiator advising Ilan’s father Didier as the family’s chosen representative is somewhat helpful reducing the unrealistic 450,000 Euro ransom. Tragically though, the police’s refusal to acknowledge the anti-Semitic nature of the crime leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the “Gang of Barbarians,” as the abductors called themselves.

Considering how easy it is to google Ilan Halimi, it is not much of a spoiler to say the case ends quite dreadfully. However, Arcady maintains a great deal of suspense, as the horror and outrage steadily mount. Yet, this is not a propagandistic passion play. Arcady and co-writers Antoine Lacomblez and Emilie Frèche prefer to focus on resulting emotional toll the ordeal takes on the Halimi family. It is not just limited to his nuclear family either. With the police tightly controlling Didier Halimi’s contact with the kidnappers, the Gang of Barbarians expand their game of psychological terrorism, sending unspeakably graphic photos of Ilan to his cousin and rabbi.

Zabou Breitman viscerally expresses the anguish and sorrow of Ruth Halimi, but it is the quieter, more understated work of Pascal Elbé that will truly haunt viewers over time. Likewise, Jacques Gamblin dials it way down as Commandant Delcour, a sort of problematically politically correct version of Harry Baur’s soul-deadened Maigret. Within the large and diverse supporting ensemble, Audrey Giacomini stands out as Halimi’s terrified pseudo-girlfriend (understandably so, since by grabbing Ilan, the kidnappers also had her flat keys).

24 Days will turn your stomach into ice-water. It is a tense, often brutal white-knuckle ride from start to finish. However, it is important to understand, Arcady and his co-writers somewhat water-down the torments inflicted on Halimi, probably because it would be impossible to release anything remotely accurate in mainstream French theaters. Nevertheless, what we do see is profoundly disturbing.

Frankly, this film speaks for itself, if audiences are willing to listen. Unfortunately, French politicians prefer to pander for “multi-cultural” votes rather than really facing the root causes of the precipitous rise of anti-Semitic violence. Sadly, it is probably only a matter of time before another Charlie Hebdo-Ilan Halimi style attack. Very highly recommended as a masterful work of cinema and an impassioned warning for those who value tolerance and the rule of law, 24 Days opens this Friday (4/24) at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan and the Kew Gardens Cinemas in Brooklyn.