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 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.
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.
Attal later 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.
In this section the tale becomes more nuanced, the ambience scarier and the tension between what matters personally and politically more pronounced.
As writer, Rochant understands that to be seductive spy stories need to revolve around power games and issues of manipulation. But he seems unable to decide whether his pic should be a tightly knit thriller or a personal chronicle of a young man whose initial idealism is tempered by his maturation and disillusionment; pic is framed with voice-over narration, mostly letters that Attal writes to a friend.
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 with 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 in international locations (Tel Aviv, Paris and Washington), which conveys the specific flavor of each locale.
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.