Watching the Cannes Un Certain Regard opening film Father and Soldier (Tirailleurs), directed by Mathieu Vadepied, was a struggle. I am embarrassed to adit that I didn’t know that France kidnapped men from their colonies and forced them into the war. Sitting in the theater, I expected to learn more about this, but between the presented ideas and the lack of strong execution, Vadepied and Olivier Demangel’s script feels 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 Cow herders. 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 anyway and forced to leave their family for a war they didn’t sign up for.
From the first day they arrive in Europe, Bakary constantly seeks a way out, but with no money, they are stuck. Lieutenant Chambreau (Jonas Bloquet) takes Thierno under his wing and starts indoctrinating him to believe that fighting for France is the best thing he’ll ever accomplish in life. Bakary knows this is a dangerous move and tries to protect his son and keep him grounded, but eventually loses his influence over Thierno. Now the man must do whatever it takes to keep his son from dying on the battlefield, so they can return to the family they left behind together.
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. Why didn’t Vadepied copy those same emotional cues for Father and Soldier if Glory was an influence?
The script doesn’t allow its characters to process the effects of the kidnapping trauma, and when it is mentioned, it’s done matter of factly. There is no exploration of the severity of French imperialism and no further analysis of the unknown soldiers of the war, which the film touts is mostly Black Africans. Instead, the story makes room for frivolous and bizarre conversations about sleeping with white women and how much they care about fighting in France’s war. Sy and Diong are giving the best performances they can muster. However, Bakary and Thierno still feel static and incapable of eliciting emotions from an audience due to the plot’s limitations.
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 critical 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 molded by creatives who can elevate it to a high emotional plane.
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