Ilam Halimi (Syrus Shahidi) sneaks out of his parents’ Paris home after Shabbat dinner for a tryst with his new girlfriend, Emma (Donia Eden). But, it is a setup and he is kidnapped and held for ransom by the notorious “gang of barbarians.” His parents, Ruth (Zabou Breitman) and Didier (Pascal Elbe), and the police must race the clock during the next dizzying “24 Days.”
Director-writer Alexandre Arcady, with co-scripters Emilie Freche and Antoine Lacomblez, tells the harrowing and, unfortunately, true story of hate for the sake of hate. Ilan did not know it but Emma was one of several “lures” working for the gang to find young Jewish men to be targeted for abduction and ransom.
Much of the film is from Ilan’s mom’s POV as she must deal with the intrusion of the police and government rules in France that prohibits the paying of ransom, for any reason. Zabou Breitman is the emotional anchor of the film and you can feel her feel the pain her son is being put through at the hands of his tormentors, led by volatile (read: crazy) Youssouf “Django” Fofana (Tony Harrisson). Hers is the meatier role as ex-wife Ruth than that of Pascal Elbe as Didier, who must bear the brunt of dealing with Django as the intermediary in the puppet show being manipulated by his handlers, principally police psychologist Brigitte Farell (Sylvie Testud).
Arcady tells the linear story of what happened during those terrible 24 days, using flashback to what to show events leading up to the kidnapping. The film deals with the family and how they cope (or not) with the tragedy and the unpublicized police investigation taking place in the background. Thankfully, the scenes of Ilan’s torture by his abductors are not as graphic as they could have been. (I suggest that, if you are squeamish, avoid reading about Ilan’s terrible plight.)
One strong point “24 Days” hits home with is that the terror acts, such as Ilan’s, are the product of the rise of anti-Semitism in France, something that is outlawed but still exists. Another point the filmmakers make is that the police, only after the fact of Ilan’s abduction, torture and death, admitted that they did not treat the case as anti-Jewish. The result is a powerful family drama that has marked political and social overtones. I give it a B.
Ruth Halimi (Zabou Breitman, "The First Day of the Rest of Your Life") wasn't happy when her 23 year-old son Ilan (Syrus Shahidi) went out on the Sabbath. It was the last time she'd see him alive. 'How could something like this happen in Paris in 2006?' she asks us directly, referring to the kidnapping and murder of her son, the first person to be killed in France because they were a Jew since the Holocaust. Ruth knew almost immediately that the police were on the wrong track as she suffered over Ilan's fate for "24 Days."
Cowriter (with Emilie Frèche and Antoine Lacomblez)/director Alexandre Arcady uses Ruth Halimi's book '24 Days: The Truth about the Death of Ilan Halimi' to tell the true story of what would only be the beginning of a rise of anti-Semitism in France. Told from Ruth's POV, the movie is nonetheless a tense police procedural as we keep company with the Halimi family undergoing confusion, fear, rage, hope and ultimately grief. Arcady's choice somewhat muddies the motivations of the responsible 'gang of the Barbarians' led by Youssouf Fofana (Tony Harrisson, "35 Shots of Rum") and his reliance on transitioning scenes with fades to black gives his film a made-for-TV feel, as if we'll be cutting to commercial breaks, but the film is effective as a warning that history is repeating itself.
After Ruth's direct address to us, we meet her family. Living in a modest apartment, Ruth, a secretary, is indulgent of her charming son who aggravates older sis Yaël (Alka Balbir). (Another sister lives separately, married with a small child.) Ilan is thrilled to get a phone call from 'Emma' (Donia Eden) and leaves abruptly to meet her after telling his girlfriend Mony (Audrey Giacomini, "Mr. Nobody") he's meeting a male friend and will be over to her place later. But when he walks Emma home much later, he's ambushed, beaten and bound. The next day, just as Yaël complains about Ilan not having shown up for the family lunch he'd committed to, a hysterical Mony calls. She tells them Ilan never showed up the night before and she's gotten a mysterious email. Ilan's brother-in-law follows its instructions and the family is shocked by the picture they've been sent - it's Ilan, his head swaddled in duct tape, a gun pointed towards his head. Ruth's ex-husband, estranged from the family for decades but recently grown closer to his son, is called and Didier Halimi (Pascal Elbé, "The Other Son") proves so adept with the kidnapper's phone calls, he becomes the family point man with the police.
The film's midsection counts down the days with Ruth's maternal instinct screaming hate crime while the police insist their profiling indicates a professional group working from the Ivory Coast intent on a payoff. It is painful to watch as one mistake after another is made (known felon Fofana is stopped in broad daylight, travels into and out of France and eludes capture when his location is known and blown), Commandant Delcour (Jacques Gamblin, "Inspector Bellamy") reluctant to side with Ruth after recent rioting and the sensational false testimony of young girl who claimed an anti-Semitic attack six months prior (the latter event also made into a film, "The Girl on the Train"). Arcady presents enough of the horror endured by Ilan without dwelling upon it, instead illustrating how the police tactics, formulated by police psychologist Brigitte Farell (Sylvie Testud, "La Vie en Rose," "La France"), caused Fofana's group to disintegrate under pressure, resulting in the young man's death. The film's final act shows how even after Ilan's murder, the family had to fight to have the case classified as anti-Semitic.
While Arcady makes it clear that Fofana targeted Jews (in fact, five others had been approached by his lures and resisted, the kidnappers' emails referred to a Jew rather than a man and Fofana played Quran verse during one of his calls), it is unclear what the gang's ultimate intent was. Were they raising money for terrorist acts? Was there ever any intent of releasing their captive? Why should Fofana have been known by the police? Fofana and his Barbarians may not be he focus of "24 Days," but his goals are certainly of interest, especially given the size of the group arrested (29). Just how far is this man's reach? What Arcady does do is create the anti-Semitic atmosphere in which they operate. We witness dissent among Fofana's ranks, most of whom are young, looking to make a fast buck. One, Jérôme Ribeiro (Olivier Barthelemy, "Mesrine Part 2: Public Enemy #1"), makes his break early, disturbed by the sadism on display. The director also indicates a general lack of concern in the neighborhood where Ilan was kept, many witnesses not coming forward, the apartment building's manager in collusion with the gang. Our final image of Ilan is horrifying, his body subjected to every evil of the Holocaust save a gunshot wound.
"24 Days" is finally a movie about one mother's fight to turn her son's horrible fate into a call to arms. It ends as it began, Ruth Halimi addressing us directly, telling of the outpouring of support in letters across all religions. But her last address is from Jerusalem - Ruth Halimi felt the need to move her son's grave from Paris, afraid that were he left there, it would be defaced. Sadly, she's probably right.
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