Actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz’s fact-based “Rebellion” muscularly fulfills the duties of a war movie, a historical reckoning and a political intervention, at least to the extent that the survival of Kanak culture within the French Pacific colony of New Caledonia remains an ongoing concern. Aptly combining action and dialogue, the epic pic vividly recounts the efforts of a French counterterrorism captain (Kassovitz) to negotiate peace with Kanak separatist leader Alphonse Dianou (Iabe Lapacas) during the French presidential election year of 1988. The film, out mid-November in Gaul, concludes with a mention that New Caledonians will vote on their independence in 2014.
Co-written by Kassovitz from a memoirist novel by his real-life counterpart, Capt. Philippe Legorjus, “Rebellion” begins at the end of the story, with Legorjus watching helplessly as French soldiers violently overwhelm Dianou’s independence-seeking rebels in the jungle of Ouvea Island. Staged by Kassovitz as a hallucinatory nightmare, with elaborate tracking shots of French Army barbarism unspooling in reverse, “Operation Victor” succeeded in freeing French hostages but stands among the most controversial military incidents in the nation’s recent history.
Within the film’s subsequent flashback, archival TV footage of a tense debate between then-president Francois Mitterand and right-wing prime minister Jacques Chirac reveals the latter’s intent to use military force against the hostage-takers as an election ploy, this despite Legorjus’ slow and steady progress in dialogue with Dianou. Much to its credit, “Rebellion” renders conversation as dramatically as combat, particularly in lengthy scenes of Dianou and Legorjus huddled together in hopes of negotiating a peaceful resolution that the power-hungry pols can support — a strategy the film characterizes as futile from the get-go.
Despite its bloody, bravura opening, “Rebellion” runs the risk of disappointing combat-film aficionados, particularly with an English title that seems to promise thrills where the French title, translating as “Order and Discipline,” suggests ideas. Nevertheless, the movie registers as a refreshingly unusual megaproduction for its attention to the subtleties of language, to the role of words in arming or disarming weapons. Notably, the pic articulates the principles of negotiation in part by favoring dialogue over action. In this, it’s helped immeasurably by the two leads’ natural rapport, which captures the beauty of cross-cultural empathy and makes the outcome appear appropriately tragic.
Tech credits are accomplished across the board, with Marc Koninckx’s richly textured widescreen cinematography and Klaus Badelt’s pounding score deserving medals of honor.