Film Review: 24 Days: The True Story of the Ilan Halmi AffairBased on the events surrounding a 2006 kidnapping in Paris, '24 Days' is a suspenseful and compelling film that’s all the more powerful because it doesn’t shy away from contemporary anti-Semitism in France.
On the most superficial level, Alexandre Arcady’s24 Days works as a thrilling police procedural centering on the kidnapping of a young French Jew by a group of vicious thugs. But the film is far more riveting—and horrifying—because it’s based on the actual 2006 kidnapping of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi (Syrus Shahidi).
The case—and later the book by Ilan’s mother, Ruth (24 Jours: La vérité sur l’affaire Ilan Halimi)—garnered much attention that reopened old wounds and debates about anti-Semitism in France, despite the cops’ initial insistence that Halimi’s Jewish background was coincidental to his abduction and torture. From the outset, Ruth (Zabou Breitman) knew otherwise, comparing her son’s ordeal to the 2002 abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.
24 Days, which was released in France last year and has already garnered praise across the festival circuit, is fast moving and never lags. Following a Shabbat dinner with his mother and sister, Ilan receives a call from an attractive young woman inviting him to meet her at a café. Earlier that day they had enjoyed a brief flirtation in the shop where Ilan works as a phone salesman and she was browsing. When Ilan arrives for his sexy assignation, he is ambushed by kidnappers, the so-called “Gang of Barbarians.” Youssouf Fofana (Tony Harrisson), the gang’s leader, had told the decoy to scour the neighborhood in search of a Jewish victim because, in their estimation, Jews have money. As it turns out, Ilan’s parents, who are long divorced, didn’t have much. Ruth worked as an office building receptionist while her ex-husband, Didier (Pascal Elbé), ran a small clothing store.
Nonetheless, the kidnappers demand €450,000 in ransom and make it clear that if the cops are involved, Ilan will be killed. But the cops are already on the case, insisting that withholding payment provides motivation for the kidnappers to keep their victim alive. Stalling also gives the cops more time to ferret out the kidnappers. Ruth is terrified the tactic will backfire. Didier is torn but follows the dictates of the police and their forensic psychologist (Sylvie Testud), assuming they know what they’re doing.
Much of the movie is an intense and suspenseful blow-by-blow account of the Halimis at loggerheads with the authorities and frequently with each other. The cops unsuccessfully attempt to track down the elusive criminals as their mastermind phones from a French suburb where Ilan is sequestered or from his home base in the Ivory Coast. He is adept at tossing cell phones after one brief use, making detection that much more difficult.
The film is provocative on many levels, starting with its inquiry into how broad-based and deep-seated anti-Semitism is in France. As time passes and Fofana becomes increasingly enraged, so do his anti-Semitic tirades coupled with vicious physical violence against Ilan. Greed and extortion aside, the kidnapping is at core a hate crime. Fofana is black and arguably represents current black and Muslim tensions with French Jews. But white youths, impoverished and disenfranchised, are also members of Fofana’s gang and their hatred is old school. One young hood has Nazi posters in his room. The two subcultures with little in common seem to have found a bond.
Are the French police anti-Semitic, too? As represented in the film, they’re simpatico, hard-working, but ultimately incompetent, simply unable to find Ilan despite his proximity and access to eye witnesses. The movie raises real questions about entrenched police procedures.
24 Days is a film with complex cross-currents, and Arcady pulls it off seamlessly. He brings together a first-rate acting ensemble, headed by Breitman as the desperate and fatalistic Ruth. Elbé is excellent, too, as the estranged husband-father caught up in an emotional stranglehold. Testud is every bit the intelligent, if a tad too self-confident, psychologist, and Jacques Gamblin is especially good as the deeply troubled Commandant Delcour overseeing a case that could unravel at any moment with dire social and political consequences—in addition to making him look like a fool.
But credit must also go to Manu de Sousa for his taut editing so essential in a thriller, and to production designer Tony Egry for vividly bringing to life the unassuming and slightly cluttered Halimi home, the airless police precinct, and the bleak housing projects where Fofana’s white partners live.
Like the rest of the picture, the end is disturbing, while at the same time introducing a note of hope as the camera pans large demonstrations against anti-Semitism that did in fact occur in the wake of the kidnapping.
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