French Rendez-Vous: 2

The Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York presented two films that showed World War II France from an unusual perspective.

In “Here Below” (“Ici-bas”) set in occupied France, Sister Luce (Celine Sallette), a devoted nun begins a relationship with a chaplain in the Resistance, Martial (Eric Caravaca). Sister Luce approaches her love for Martial with the same fervor she had for her religious devotion. She leaves the convent.

Sallette is particularly impressive in showing the new obsession in the former nun’s life begins to endanger the Resistance activities. Caravaca and the supporting cast give strong performances. Director Jean-Pierre Denis who co-wrote the screenplay builds tension with a gripping collision of religion with the personal and political.

“Free Men” (“Les Hommes Libre”) is inspired by true incidents, not well-known in France, of how Jews were saved in the Paris Mosque during the Nazi occupation. Younes (Tahar Rahim, the charismatic young star of “A Prophet”) is an Algerian who is caught in his black market activities in Paris by the Nazis. Because of a crackdown on immigrants, Younes is forced to spy on the Paris Grand Mosque for the Nazis.

Younes discovers some Jewish children, hiding in the Mosque and passes off as Muslims. Led by the Rector (Michael Lonsdale), Jews are being protected by being provided with false identity papers. As in “Of Gods and Men”, Lonsdale is a warm and formidable presence. Younes becomes friends with Salim (Mahmoud Shalaby), an Algerian singer celebrated for his mellifluous voice. Younes finds out that Salim is Jewish, so also endangered if his background is exposed.

The Rector of the Paris Mosque and Nazi visitors

The main actors, including Lubna Azabal (“Incendies”) as a woman involved in the deceptions at the Mosque, are extremely well-cast. “Free Men” is compelling. Director Ismael Ferroukhi who co-wrote the screenplay maintains suspense as Younes gains awareness of the clandestine activities in the Mosque, becoming more involved, even in a desperate attempt to smuggle Jews out of France.

Younes (Tahar Rahim)

Director Ismael Ferroukhi was drawn to the story after reading an article about how the Paris Mosque protected Jews from the Nazis. For Ferroukhi, the events emphasized the “common heritage” between Jews and Muslims. The Rector and the Algerian singer with a hidden Jewish identity were historical characters. Ferroukhi quoted the Rector that giving refuge to the Jews was “my duty as a Muslim”. 1700 Jews were saved at the Paris Mosque.

Director Ismael Ferroukhi and lead actor Tahar Rahim at Rendez-Vous

Vincent Lindon, one of France’s top actors, was inNew York for the Rendez-Vous with “Pater”, a collaboration with his friend director Alain Cavalier. The camera follows Lindon and Cavalier through a photogenic meal. They joke about how they would behave as politicians. They begin some seemingly improvisational role-playing with Cavalier as French President and Lindon as his Prime Minister.

Cavalier (left) and Lindon (center) in “Pater”

The business attire of his “character” is a big change for Cavalier who jokes that he hasn’t worn a suit since his 1986 film “Therese” was shown at Cannes. “Pater” has some sly wit during conversations, but the slightness of the conception causes the film to drag during a conventional length.

Lindon also appeared in “A Few Days With Me” (Quelques Jours Avec Moi”), a real find from 1988 that was shown as part of a tribute to the 60 years of the French film magazine Positif. The film is directed and co-written by Claude Sautet, celebrated for sensitive character studies like “Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud” and “Un Coeur en Hiver”.

Martial (Daniel Auteuil), recovering from a nervous breakdown, has little interest in life or in his marriage. Heir to a chain of department stores, Martial is sent to a provincial town to check up on the local branch. He begins to take an interest in the new surroundings, and becomes attracted to a local waitress (Sandrine Bonnaire). He becomes chummy with his firm’s regional director (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who has been embezzling. Martial and a diverse group of locals become an unexpectedly cohesive group of friends. Lindon plays the boyfriend of Bonnaire,

Martial’s new life takes some intriguing twists. Sautet expertly combines drama with comedy. A group of top French actors is in peak form, creating rich portraits of their characters.