It started with a violent standoff and ended with a peaceful march, during which a small group of protestors organized a cross-country demonstration, carrying banners “for equality and against racism” from the South of France to Paris. Backed by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp, “La Marche” serves as a grittified group hug on behalf of the ideals these young activists represented, posturing as verite re-creation despite its relatively glossy origins. Co-writer/director Nabil Ben Yadir’s tolerance-minded message arrives at an opportune moment in French immigrant relations, allowing pubcasters to boost the pic’s already well-funded plea, which should also travel well abroad.
From a domestic vantage looking out, it’s easy to forget that the United States’ civil rights breakthroughs occurred decades before many of the equivalent victories abroad, and intolerance toward outsiders persists today, even in countries without a historical trauma comparable to America’s grim slave-holding past. “La Marche” unfolds as late as 1983, when a group of young, mostly non-white activists decided to take a stand in France.
Their cause was sparked by the unprovoked shooting of an Algerian youth by police in Lyon’s low-income, mixed-race Minguettes neighborhood, an incident the film depicts as an act of spontaneous near-martyrdom: Charismatic Mohamed (Tewfik Jallab) sees a police dog chasing rascal-friend Hassan (Jamel Debbouze) and intervenes in his defense, only to be fired upon by the cops. It’s a moment reminiscent of the Rodney King beating that set off the L.A. riots, though Mohamed (inspired by real-life march organizer Toumi Djaidja) and his cohorts respond with an angry, yet decidedly non-violent plan of spreading their message on foot — and face-to-face with any who will listen — from one end of the country to the other, culminating in a meeting with President Francois Mitterand that directly influenced legislation.
Though Belgian director Ben Yadir’s screenplay (liberally adapted from historical events with co-writers Nadia Lakhdar and Ahmed Hamidi) offers ample time for impassioned speeches, much of the dramatic energy derives from petty squabbles and romantic intrigue within the ranks of the small group. At first, the marchers number only eight, not counting their crotchety driver/mascot (Philippe Nahon), as the pic attempts to maximize the chemistry between them: White boys (like Sylvain, played by Vincent Rottiers) fall for exotic beauties (such as the lovely Hafsia Herzi, from “The Secret of the Grain”), and a straight guitar player (Nader Boussandel) crushes on the token snaggle-toothed lesbian (Charlotte Le Bon, whose character is Canadian). Tubby but lovable Farid (M’Barek Belkouk) worries that his shoes stink, while Debbouze resurfaces halfway through to supply some broad, largely unnecessary comic relief.
The group is overseen by a Lyonnais priest, Christophe Dubois (played by that great Belgian actor, Olivier Gourmet), who insists on pacifism and takes Martin Luther King Jr.-strong stands whenever the moment requires. Privately, however, the character (based on Christian Delorme) wonders whether he can bear the responsibility if crazy racists hurt or murder his flock. In the movie’s simplified reality, his concerns are well founded, as the women become targets for attempted rape and worse: One girl has a swastika carved into her back by neo-Nazis — a moment “tastefully” shown in the loosest possible focus.
The camerawork, overseen by d.p. Danny Elsen’s exceptional eye, operates mostly in an immersive handheld style, growing a bit too agitated during heated moments (such as the initial dog attack or the incomprehensible rape scene). Even so, the contrived turbulence effectively conveys the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of their endeavor.
Discouraged at first, the marchers wonder why bother if no one witnesses their gesture. Through a clever combination of shooting and editing, the film constructs a device that Roger Ebert used to call “the slow clap”: Hearts swell hopefully when the group arrives at their first stop to find just one extremely eager young man awaiting them, and the camera holds back as long as possible in later destinations to give full impact to crowds tens of thousands strong that turn up to support their cause. The emotion builds organically, whereas a subplot suggesting that the authorities schemed to arrest all involved feels a bit more forced.
Along the way, the film invokes another catalyzing historical incident — namely, the murder of Habib Grimzi, stabbed by soldiers and thrown from the window of a crowded train — that stokes outrage, reminding contemporary viewers that while the march effected real change, racially motivated hate crimes are still ongoing in Europe. Though in reality an arduous two-month road trip, the march assumes a lively, Hollywood-style optimism in the retelling, as reflected in its pop soundtrack: “All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray / I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day,” sing the Mamas and Papas, and over the course of that uplifting montage, the filmmakers and activists alike seem to be looking west for inspiration. California dreamin’, indeed.