The closest person to a protagonist in the gripping historical mosaic “Army of Crime” is eminent Armenian poet Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian). A militant communist and hero of the French Resistance, executed by the Nazis in 1944, he is the noblest figure in a sprawling, semifictional movie that has
enough characters to fill a neighborhood.
As the story begins in 1941 in occupied Paris; Germany has just invaded Russia. Manouchian, along with fellow communists, is rounded up and detained at a nearby camp from which he is released after signing a document disavowing his politics. A reflective soul, scraps of whose poetry are heard in the film,
Manouchian does not believe in killing. And the scenes of his rendezvous with his adoring French wife, Melinee (Virginie Ledoyen) lend the movie a faint romantic blush.
But when the Nazis crack down on the Resistance, Manouchian’s philosophy toughens. He joins the FTP-MOI, an armed unit of anti-fascist partisans — mostly communist, mostly Jewish immigrants from Spain, Hungary, Poland, Armenia and Italy — and becomes its commander. For his terrorist initiation, he tosses a grenade into a group of German soldiers, as two younger colleagues swoop in and finish off those who are still alive.
“Army of Crime,” whose title alludes to Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 masterpiece, “Army of Shadows” (set in the same period), was directed by Robert
Guediguian, a Marseille-based filmmaker of German and Armenian parentage, and
adapted from a story by Serge Le Peron. It also refers to the infamous “Affiche Rouge” (red poster) circulated by the Nazis on which the headline, “L’Armee du Crime” (“Army of Crime”), was plastered under the anti-fascist partisans’ photographs.
Early-1940s Paris, as evoked by the film, is a city where life seems to go on as usual until a bomb or a shooting interrupts the apparent placidity. Unlike Melville’s film, it pointedly disputes the idea of a unanimous French Resistance. Behind the scenes the Paris police, eager to impress the Nazis, supervise grisly tortures of suspected partisans. Pujol (Jean- Pierre Darroussin), an inspector where the Resistance is centered, is emblematic of the
double-dealing treachery of French officials. Trucks containing Jewish deportees rumble through the streets and give pedestrians only a moment’s pause.
The movie’s casting of a very wide net robs it of dramatic solidity. We meet not only several hotheaded young partisans, but also their families, who, in varying degrees, shrink from their children’s heroics. These portraits, however brief, are finely etched. Together they convey the sense of an underground movement collectively holding its breath. If the decision to concentrate on a group lends “Army of Crime” a semidocumentary authenticity, it dilutes its emotional impact by going off on too many tangents.
The story is told in flashback from the opening moments, shot inside a prison bus in which 23 FTP-MOI partisans, rounded up for execution, are shown peering glumly through barred windows as a roll call of their names is intoned. From there it backtracks three years to introduce Missak and Melinee, and two young firebrands, Marcel Rayman (Robinson Stevenin), a Jewish student of Polish origins and a swimming champion, and Thomas Elek (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), a
Hungarian, carrying out daredevil terrorist acts.
Was it all for naught? Weeks after the 23 partisans were arrested (and all but two promptly executed), Paris was liberated. “Army of Crime” is a passionate act of remembrance.