Published on October 31, 2016 by Sean Flynt  
Poster art for the six films
Poster art for the six films

Samford’s Department of World Languages and Cultures will host a free, public Tournées Film Festival during National French Week and International Education Weeks Nov. 7-21.

The films, all subtitled in English, will be shown in Christenberry Planetarium at the times listed below.

Nov. 7    7:15 p.m.     Monsieur Lazhar (French/English/Arabic)

A classroom is a place of friendship, of work, of courtesy, a place of life,” says the new teacher of the title to his sixth-grade students in a Montreal public school. That profoundly touching statement evinces the deep respect Monsieur Lazhar (the phenomenal Mohamed Fellag) has for his charges, who are still reeling from a beloved teacher’s very public suicide. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau’s unforgettable movie, based on a one-person play by Evelyne de la Chenelière, explores the intricate process by which M. Lazhar earns the respect and trust of his pupils, some of them the children of immigrants or, like this devoted instructor, recent arrivals to Quebec. As the reasons for M. Lazhar’s immigration to Canada from Algeria are made clear, so, too is his rather unconventional method for applying for the teaching position. Yet this educator isn’t the film’s only multifaceted character: the preteen students are also fascinatingly complex, struggling with roiling emotions and troubles at home. Monsieur Lazhar is that rarest of movies about education: one that avoids clichés and sentimentality in favor of honesty and clear-eyed compassion.

Nov. 8    7:45     Qu’Allah bénisse la France! / May Allah Bless France! (French/Arabic/Lingala)
May Allah Bless France! is the invigorating first feature by acclaimed Frenchrapper and novelist Abd Al Malik, a coming-of-age story and redemption tale based on the writer-director’s own youth in the beleaguered projects of Strasbourg. The film follows the struggles of Régis, a budding rapper who relies on petty crime to fund his passion for music. But as his fellow musicians get lured into drug dealing, teenage Régis finds salvation in the classics of French literature and his conversion to Sufi Islam. While Abd Al Malik’s edifying hymn to education and tolerance is first and foremost a boldly idealistic statement, it is also a profoundly satisfying cinematic experience, shot in high-contrast black and white and full of powerful stylistic devices that break with convention to heighten the impact of everyday violence and injustice. Fluidly adapting his talents as a storyteller to the screen, Abd Al Malik revisits the “banlieue film”—the sub genre of films dealing with restless youth in France’s tough suburbs, launched by Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine in 1995—not only to give an insider’s update, but to break with the genre’s suffocating pessimism. In these challenging times for France, and particularly for French Muslims, this intelligent and accessible call for a potential way forward is nothing short of essential viewing.


Nov. 9  7:15 p.m.     Parce que j’étais peintre / Because I Was a Painter   
Christophe Cognet’s absorbing documentary about artworks created by those imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II explores a number of paradoxes. Can a drawing of unimaginable horrors, for instance, ever be considered “beautiful”? What, exactly, is “beauty”? The
surviving artists, interviewed in in their homes in Israel, France, Poland, and other countries, express a range of opinions on these matters; one painter asserts that depicting his surroundings, no matter how gruesome, on paper was the only way to endure the torture. Others declare that sketching people, places, and events from the past was crucial to their survival. The testimony of these subjects is profoundly moving, never more so than when they offer a close critical analysis of the pieces they made during their incarceration. Cognet also meets with several museum curators and art historians who shed light on the trove of works left by those died in the camps—including the scores of portraits that Dinah Gottliebova, who was assigned to work with Josef Mengele, did of Roma detainees shortly before they were killed. Tackling two seemingly irreconcilable subjects—the atrocities of the Holocaust and the drive to create art—Because I Was a Painter provides a vital discussion of both.

Nov. 14  7:15 p.m.             Francophonia (French/Russian/German)
Francofonia is the great Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov’s heroically ambitious meditation on European culture and history as seen through the story of the Louvre museum in Paris, with a particular focus on its fortunes during World War II. Neither a straight documentary nor a standard work of fiction, the film achieves an essayistic density by moving between several narrative strands: there is Sokurov himself, talking via Skype with a cargo ship captain carrying part of the Louvre’s holdings through a deadly storm; France’s national symbol Marianne roaming the museum’s collections with Napoleon Bonaparte; and the true story of the friendship between the Louvre’s wartime French curator and the Nazis’ head of artistic preservation (or, perhaps more accurately, appropriation). In what may be the film’s most affecting sequence, Sokurov turns closer to home and compares the Louvre’s relatively benign wartime fate with that of the Hermitage Museum in besieged Leningrad. Sokurov’s voiceover directly addresses the characters in archival images and present-day footage shot in his distinctive palette of gold and beige, his ruminations aiming for nothing less than a history of the relationship between art and power in twentieth-century Europe. This exploration of savagery and civilization as seen through the treatment of artistic treasures proves once more that Sokurov is not only one of the most idiosyncratic artists of our age but one of its most passionate, a living witness to the fading dream of a Europe defined by its artistic grandeur.

Nov. 15   4 p.m.     La Sapienza /Wisdom  (French/Italian)

La Sapienza is the magnificent culmination of the work of one of today’s most idiosyncratic, fascinating directors, the American-born but profoundly French Eugène Green. In La Sapienza, Green, an expert in baroque theater, sends a tired middle-aged French couple on a pilgrimage to the baroque marvels of the Swiss canton of Ticino. Here, the architect and his wife befriend a young brother and sister and take them under their wing. The architect invites the young man to Rome to discover his predecessor Borromini’s masterpiece: the Church of St. Yves at La Sapienza. By contrasting the elevating beauty of the baroque with grisly contemporary architecture and finding echoes of global conflict in the most placid corners of Switzerland, Green paints a dispiriting picture of the modern world. Yet his treatment of the brother and sister Goffredo and Lavinia clearly signal that he has every hope for the next generation. In La Sapienza, the past is a source of inspiration, the present is dismaying, and the future is wide open. As luminously spiritual as it can be scathingly funny about contemporary mores, La Sapienza is lucid about our challenges but deliriously ecstatic about the possibility for beauty and love.

Nov. 21  7:15 p.m.     L’armée des ombres / Army of Shadows  (French)

In Army of Shadows (1969), Jean-Pierre Melville, master of the French noir, takes the atmospheric style and cool efficiency of his gangster classics Le Doulos and Le Samouraï and applies them to the French Resistance, following Resistance leader Philippe Gerbier (in a powerfully understated performance by the legendary Lino Ventura) as he escapes from the Gestapo and sets about rebuilding his network. As ever, the director excels at generating tension by quietly drawing out scenes, dwelling on the grim expectation in his characters’ faces rather than their actions and focusing on the moral impact of violence rather than its execution. The film’s distinctive blue-hued photography matches its sorrowful mood: it is as much a film about solitude, silence, and secrecy as about heroism, loyalty, and daring escapes. Here, the knowledge that the characters are loosely based on real Resistance figures makes for a unique blend of horror and excitement. But perhaps the greatest achievement of Army of Shadows is that it transcends its historical setting to provide a definitive portrait of twentieth-century man staring into the metaphysical abyss, only ever one step away from absurdity. As such, it is one of the most striking cinematic illustrations of the French Resistance as Existentialism’s moral litmus test.

The Tournées Film Festival is a program of the French-American Cultural Exchange (FACE) Foundation, in partnership with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, which aims to bring French cinema to American college and university campuses.