Shot before last January's Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, this French thriller about a journalist infiltrating a jihadist cell strikes raw nerve as it anticipates recent tragedies.
Even without the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks, “Made in France” would be a tough film for most Parisians to sit through, stoking danger-next-door paranoia in a city already frazzled enough over foreign threats. That raw-nerve connection to current events explains why local distributor Pretty Pictures and producer Radar Films opted to delay the film from its intended Nov. 18 release. (As it happens, the touchy pic’s sortie had been canceled once before in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings last January.) Still, it’s important to note that despite its unsettling subject matter, Nicolas Boukhrief’s thriller is neither exploitation movie nor anarchist cookbook, but rather a thoughtful and sobering “what if” scenario of home-grown, domestically targeted terrorism that’s being punished for having eerily anticipated a real-world tragedy.
To date, the film has only screened in midnight slots at the Busan and Tallinn Black Nights film festivals, traveling under the more literal (and considerably less chilling) title “Inside the Cell” — whereas the original “Made in France” stresses the twist that locals, rather than refugees, can be responsible for such a threat. While it may be too soon for French audiences to confront such ugly truths, in the long run, Boukhrief’s gripping account (co-written by Eric Besnard) of five French citizens who’ve embraced the call to jihad does what effective shock art should, confronting complacent viewers with an upsetting reality while provoking them to analyze the situation at hand.
Perhaps the most challenging of Boukhrief’s creative choices is his decision to set the story almost entirely “inside the cell,” following his protagonist, Sam (Malik Zidi), a journalist dedicated to Islamic culture researching an article on extremism, as he goes undercover within a radical mosque located in the suburbs of Paris. We meet Sam’s wife, Laure (Judith Davis), but only briefly at the outset. She serves little more than an expository role, while giving his investigation some measure of personal stakes (clearly, if he is found out, Sam risks putting his wife and child in danger).
Later — too late, by any reasonable measure — Sam goes to the police for help, bringing two tough cops (Franck Gastambide, Nicolas Grandhomme) into the equation, though not until after being a party to the group’s first lethal strike, a heavy-artillery trailer-park execution of the dealers who sell them weapons. Apart from those three anemic links to the outside world, however, Sam’s only dealings are with his four fellow extremists: group leader Hassan (Dimitri Storoge), a shopping-mall shoe salesman waiting for his chance to strike back at his Christian and capitalist countrymen; Christophe (Francois Civil), a bourgeois French convert and the son of well-to-do Catholic parents; Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed), an aggressive ex-con with a thick Arabic accent who met Hassan in prison; and Sidi (Ahmed Drame), an African immigrant with misgivings about their violent course.
Hassan returns from a trip abroad with vivid stories of jihadist training camps in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. He tells his fellow believers that they have been chosen by Al Qaeda to perform “taqiya” before the strike: “Shave off your beards,” Hassan instructs. “You need to blend into the crowd. Become invisible.” And so, Sam, already undercover as a jihadist, must reverse the deception undertaken to join the group and re-assimilate with normal society — an intriguing task for Zidi, a white-skinned, red-headed actor of Algerian descent. Like his character, the Kabyle thesp looks more innocuously European than most native Frenchmen, a casting choice designed to make audiences uneasy.
In the days since Nov. 13, France has taken the predictable route (similar to many Americans in the wake of Sept. 11) of casting a suspicious eye on Arabs, but “Made in France” reminds that not all Arabs are jihadists, and not all jihadists are Arabs. At the same time, the film seizes on the even more upsetting idea that anyone could be a terrorist — and not just foreigners. They could be your neighbors or even your children, as in Christophe’s case: His allowance foots the bill, while his grandmother’s house serves as their base of operations, the pic’s most chilling moment being a simple camera pan placing their HQ on a nondescript residential street.
Having tapped into these phobias, Boukhrief proceeds to deliver an effective if otherwise relatively straightforward thriller, featuring tactics seen week in, week out on series such as “24” and “Homeland,” but far less frequently on the big screen. The police task Sam with alerting them to the group’s planned attack before it happens, pressuring him to identify who from Al Qaeda is giving Hassan his orders. That mission leads to a handful of white-knuckle moments in which he searches cell phones and installs a bug on his comrades’ laptop, along with several close calls when loaded dialogue mistakenly implies that he has been discovered.
While Sam pursues his own investigation, Christophe insists on documenting most of the group’s activities on a lightweight video camera — a strange choice, since the film isn’t presented as a found-footage artifact, though that format could also have worked. Given the pretext of infiltrating the group in order to understand them better, Boukhrief passes up an important opportunity to reveal any concrete insights into their character. Sam shares his impressions up front, differentiating between the jihadists and devout Muslims (“Apart from two or three Surahs, they know nothing about the Quran,” he explains) and suggesting it’s a thirst for violence, not religion, that draws certain personalities to extremism — a trait they share with neo-Nazis and other radicals with no ties to Islam. In one of the oldest cliches known to cinema, Sam is saved by his Quran. But what does he learn from the experience exactly, apart from fear?