In his third and most accessible feature, “The Patriots,” rising French filmmaker Eric Rochant continues to explore the themes of political commitment and personal integrity, this time situated in Israel’s intriguing world of espionage. Large-scale, big-budgeted production aspires to belong to the thrilling milieu of John Le Carre, but its rather conventional ideas and uneven execution make it just a sprawling, intermittently absorbing movie. Opening in France June 1, pic is likely to fly high in Europe, and its international cast signals some commercial potential offshore, where Rochant is virtually unknown.
With the demise of the Cold War, declining force of communism and changing realities of Eastern Europe, the Middle East seems to be a natural, still largely unexplored backdrop for new espionage movies.
Yvan Attal stars as Ariel, a young French Jew whose need for a more meaningful identity motivates him to leave his family and volunteer for work in the Mossad, Israel’s venerated Institute for Intelligence.
Adventure begins in Tel Aviv in 1983, when Attal’s car breaks down and he and another man are arrested and brutally treated by the Israeli police. A flashback quickly establishes that Attal had left his country four years earlier on his 18 th birthday.
Initial hour follows Attal as he’s recruited by Unit 238, one of the organization’s toughest, and is trained in all its necessary procedures by Yossi (Yossi Banai), who in the process becomes his surrogate father. His first mission, involving a French atomic scientist, presents no problems of conscience , as its goal is to protect Israel against a nuclear disaster.
In the second mission, which is set in 1987, Attal gets to work with Pelman (Richard Masur), a Jewish-American agent who’s married to a gentile (Nancy Allen) and provides Israel with vital info for its survival. It’s in this section that the tale gets more nuanced, the ambience scarier and the tension between what matters personally and politically more overtly pronounced.
As writer, Rochant understands that, in order to be seductive, spy stories need to revolve around power games and issues of manipulation. And for a while, particularly in the second part, his movie shows the nasty, foul work conducted by intelligence officers in the name of absolute ideals.
One suspects that larger issues are on the writer’s mind, such as the price a person is willing to pay to gain desirable group membership, or the conflict between the dictates of national service and moral integrity.
But Rochant seems unable to decide whether his pic should be a tightly knit suspense-thriller or a personal chronicle of a young man whose initial idealism is tempered by his maturation and disillusionment; pic is framed with voiceover narration, mostly letters that Attal writes to a friend.
Although Rochant tackles the same themes as Le Carre, “The Patriots” lacks the sophisticated cynicism and moral ambiguity of the noted author’s best stories.
Most of what Rochant says about intelligence operations is familiar, such as the contrasts between professionalism and ethics, or the insistence of the Mossad on paying its agents even if they’re willing to work out of idealism. Helmer’s naivete also informs his attitude toward the Mossad as a mythically powerful institution.
The handsome Attal, who played the leads in Rochant’s former pix, acquits himself with an expressive performance that sensitively indicates the gradual changes in his personality. He is surrounded by an able international cast that includes noted Israeli thesp Banai and Americans Allen Garfield, Masur and Allen. Transition from one language to another is surprisingly efficient and effortless.
Tech credits are excellent, particularly the lensing, which conveys the specific flavor of each locale (Tel Aviv, Paris and Washington).
Chief problem is unmodulated pacing: At times pic plods along monotonously, with the camera taking excessively long rests on the actors’ faces. With a running time of almost 2 1/2 hours, “The Patriots” could benefit from a trimming of at least 20 minutes.