Director: Hélier Cisterne
Cast: Vincent Lacoste, Vicky Krieps
The French occupation of India was not as wide as that of the British. France's India settlements were small and geographically separated – Mahe in the west, Pondicherry and Karaikal in the East and Chandernagore in what was is now West Bengal among others. But French colonisation of Africa was huge, and it included Algeria, which won its independence in 1962. Not much about this is known in India.
Helier Cisterne's Faithful in French – which had its world premiere at the ongoing Rome International Film Festival – is an incisive study of the Algerian freedom struggle seen through the eyes of one man, an ordinary factory worker, Fernand Iventon. It is a true story, and he is played in the movie by Vincent Lacoste.
Iventon was an idealist, communist and strongly believed that the French should not rule his native Algeria. On the lines of India's Bhagat Singh or Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, who felt that the way to rid India of British rule was through an armed struggle (which was directly contrary to Mahatma Gandhi's views of Ahimsa and non-violence), Iventon took up arms to see his beloved country free from what he and many others perceived as an extremely cruel administration.
Faithful faithfully follows Iventon as he places a bomb in the Algiers factory where he works. Although his idea was not to kill or maim anybody and although the device did not go off at all, he was arrested and charged with treason. He was tried for murder, sentenced and guillotined. It was only in 1981 that France abolished capital punishment.
Cisterne' work is non-linear, going back and forth, starting during Iventon's days in Paris, where he meets Helene (Vicky Krieps), a young Polish woman. Although she has a son from her earlier marriage which has not yet ended, she falls in love with Iventon and goes away with him to Algiers – to a life that is fraught with dangerous uncertainty. And when Iventon is held and declared a traitor, Helene is also labelled that and subjected to degrading humiliation.
The film has arresting moments – both when the couple are courting in Paris and later, when Iventon is tortured in custody and faces a trial by a French tribunal that is nothing short of mockery.
In an important way, Iventon's memory has been haunting the French psyche. About to die, he appealed to Francois Mitterrand, who was then the French Justice Minister in charge of considering such requests. Many years later, when he became President, he was asked by three journalists whether he had voted for Iventon's execution. Mitterrand refused to answer. However, we now know after the release of hitherto confidential material that the President had given his consent.
Obviously, the French wanted to set an example, and Iventon, though he had not killed or wounded anybody, became a convenient scapegoat.
Faithful has captured the agony and angst of political activism in the then Algeria. There are haunting images of Algiers in the 1950s, its simplicity as well as fears and anger of a people in bondage. The movie raises important political questions, hardly ever explored before in cinema. While Lacoste's Iventon embodies deep-rooted convictions. Yet, he was honest, jovial and normal, and does not match our preconceived notion of a bomber. He simply got caught up in history, a man who did not become the darling of the masses or the rallying point of the Press.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is author, commentator and movie critic)