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Arts & Culture Film Makes ‘statement’ About Vichy France, but Doesn’t Satisfy

December 19, 2003
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“The Statement” opens in 1944 with a black-and-white montage of a young French officer in the pro-Nazi Vichy militia signaling a firing squad to execute seven Jews.

More than four decades later, having been sheltered by the Catholic Church in the meantime, the officer, Pierre Brossard, is on the run after a reluctant French government finally charges him with crimes against humanity.

The film, shot in France with a first-rate British cast, is a satisfying political thriller. It combines a tour of scenic cathedrals and monasteries with an examination of the murky point where religion, politics, guilt and self-preservation intersect.

Primarily responsible for the suspense and intensity of “The Statement,” as well as some of its shortcomings, are three masters of their crafts. They are director Norman Jewison and actor Michael Caine — both Yiddish-speaking Protestants — who talked about the film and their personal backgrounds in interviews at a Los Angeles hotel.

The third is Roland Harwood, the South-African born Jewish screenwriter, who won an Oscar for “The Pianist.”

As the hunted Brossard, Caine, 70, is a devout Catholic whose twin goals are to escape his pursuers and receive the church’s absolution so he can die in a state of grace.

After him are two gunmen who initially appear to be members of a Jewish vigilante organization. They have been ordered to kill Brossard and to leave a statement on his body explaining that the assassination was in revenge for the killing of the seven Jews — and of the other 77,000 French Jews who died at the hands of the Nazi and Vichy regimes.

In the background, however, lurk powerful shadowy figures who easily made the transition from Nazi collaborators to high-ranking officials in the post-war French governments.

The film is adapted from a roman-a-clef of the same title by the late Catholic novelist Brian Moore, who based his characters on two of the more despicable figures of the Vichy regime.

Bossard is modeled on Paul Touvier, who was pardoned by French President Georges Pompidou but ultimately became the only Frenchman convicted of crimes against humanity.

Pulling the strings is a character known only as the Old Man, representing Maurice Papon, who distinguished himself during the war by interning and deporting French Jews. After the liberation, Papon became a banker and supporter of President Francois Mitterand, was decorated with the Legion of Honor in 1948 and rose to become police prefect of Paris.

The cast includes some top-notch British talent, among them Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam as government officials who crack the conspiracy, and Alan Bates and Charlotte Rampling. They all do their profession proud, but the film is not entirely satisfying.

Surprisingly for a writer of Harwood’s caliber, parts of the dialogue sound stilted, especially some of the pseudo-gangster talk. One also wonders how the shaky, winded and elderly Brossard repeatedly gets the drop on young professional killers.

A more serious failure in a film billed as a psychological thriller is the lack of insight into the motivations of Brossard — and of the Vichy collaborators generally.

Did they hate Jews? Did they consider themselves patriots? Were they ambitious opportunists? The only explanation comes from a Catholic bishop, who excuses the collaborators because they wanted to save France from the greater scourge of communism.

Finally, the Catholic Church gets a bad rap in the film. In contrast to Rolf Hochhuth’s “The Deputy” and Costa-Gravas’ “Amen,” there isn’t a single cardinal, bishop or priest in “The Statement” who doesn’t shield Nazi collaborators, gives absolution to murderers or puts the church’s reputation above human decency.

The film is justified in indicting the shameful record of France’s post-war governments — which, until quite recently, pulled a blanket of silence over the country’s anti-Semitism and its bootlicking of the Nazi conquerors.

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