Understated, tautly constructed war story “The Betrayal” takes a timely look back to the 1960 Algerian war of independence. Multivalent title refers to divided loyalties that threaten to tear apart a French army unit made up of mutually suspicious European colonizers and Algerian Arabs. Smart script co-written by Moroccan-born French helmer Philippe Faucon (“Samia”) pulls off the difficult task of doing justice to opposing positions while withholding enough information to maintain suspense. Pic should find a small but loyal following among liberals, with possibly trickier prospects in co-producing country France, where the war remains an old wound.
Patrolling a dusty rural region of Algeria, a squadron of the French army is led by Lieutenant Roque (Vincent Martinez), a decent officer and good leader worn out by homesickness and the long-running conflict with the FLN (the Algerian rebels fighting for independence). Nominally, everyone in Roque’s unit is French, including the men of European extraction born in North Africa and those of Arabic origin who’ve been promised the same rights as French citizens should the rebellion be quelled.
In practice, however, the four Arabs in the unit, led by Taieb (Ahmed Berrhama), who act as liaisons between the army and the hostile locals, are doubtful President De Gaulle’s government will honor its promises. They are treated with racism within the unit, and suspicion by their European colleagues. The locals accuse them of being traitors to their country.
The army destroys a village suspected of collaborating with the FLN and moves the residents to a refugee camp. Torture of Algerian suspects is an everyday occurrence at headquarters.
A notebook falls into the army’s hands that seems to prove Taieb and the other Arab soldiers in Roque’s unit are double agents, planning to slaughter their fellow soldiers. It could be an FLN trick to sow suspicion and undermine morale — or it could be the real deal. If Roque arrests innocent men, he will proving the French Army is racist; but if they really are traitors and he doesn’t act in time, blood will be shed.
A less ambitious film might have stuck to watching events unfold from Roque’s point of view alone, but here plenty of scenes show the Algerian soldiers talking among themselves, their dialogue in Arabic never quite proving or disproving the accusations against them. Pic cleverly plays with language to draw out suspense, not just to create mystery for its own sake but to allow the full complexity of the issues to sink in.
Perfs deftly sustain the air of ambiguity, and there’s a soft-spoken intelligence. Even the battle scenes are quiet, the gunshots sounding like tinny firecrackers — the result, perhaps of a low budget. Widescreen lensing by Laurent Fenart makes fine use of the desert landscapes, although night shots are perhaps a little more murky than need be, while subtitles giving the time and place of every scene seem unnecessary.