J’accuse: French film “24 Days” in review

Director Alexandre Arcady’s taut, suspenseful new film is entitled in English 24 Days, and like the similarly monikered Fox TV series 24, it deals with torture within a set period of time. 24 Days is based on a real-life tragedy, the January 2006 abduction in Paris of French Jew Ilan Halimi (portrayed by Syrus Shahidi), a cell phone salesman of Moroccan ancestry. Arcady shares the screenwriting credits with Antoine Lacomblez and Emilie Freche, who co-wrote with Ruth Halimi (played by Zabou Breitman in the movie) a book called 24 Days, The Truth about the Ilan Halimi Case.

Using a very realistic style, Arcady’s probing camera takes us inside the kidnapping, from Sub-Saharan Africa to France. In addition to being a policier, 24 Days is also an intense family drama. The Halimis seem like a very close knit family, although Ruth and Didier Halimi (Pascal Elbe) are actually divorced, which adds to the already considerable amount of tension. This leads toward occasionally overwrought acting in a few scenes: How many crying babies and screaming sisters, mother, etc., can a viewer stand?

The film is gripping, with a political subtext and reminiscent of Costa-Gavras. 24 Days implies that the bungling police were extremely incompetent in carrying out their investigation and attempts to rescue Halimi. Most important, the movie explores the big question as to whether Halimi’s kidnapping and abuse while being held prisoner constituted an act of anti-Semitism. The authorities try long and hard to deny this – but others thought differently, including Ruth Halimi.

Arcady has a North African background similar to Ilan Halimi’s – he was born in Algeria and is also Jewish. He moved from Algiers to France when he was 15 and many of his movies have focused on Jewish issues and subjects, hence his interest in laffaire Halimi. However, if 24 Days indeed asserts that Halimi’s hijacking was because of anti-Semitism, Arcady’s dramatization does not make a very convincing case.

In terms of motive, there is only a very quick specific Islamicist reference. The inept kidnappers appear to be acting more on the basis of greed than on hatred per se for Jews. Yes, they targeted Halimi because he was Jewish, not out of contempt for Jews, but out of their foolish belief that all Jews are rich. So while Halimi’s abductors did indeed act under the impression of a false stereotype of Jews, they did not seem to be motivated by a deep-seated hatred, unlike inquisitors, Nazis, Islamicist extremists and other fanatics since Biblical days. Neither does the movie suggest that overzealous Zionist military policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and other Arabs provoked the body snatchers. They just wanted to make a fast, easy buck, but stupidly chose a wrong target because they ignorantly believed an incorrect, idiotic caricature of Jews. (The Halimis are depicted as being a middle-class family of modest means, no millionaires they.)

Of course, France has a history of persecution of Jews, notably the notorious Dreyfus affair – which led to renowned French novelist Emile Zola’s ringing defense, “J’accuse” – and the roundup of Jews and collaboration with the Nazis during the German occupation and the Holocaust. (Most members of the kidnapping ring do not appear to be of French ancestry – some seem Arabic and the Africans do not seem to be identified as Muslims.) As said, the Halimi events played out in 2006 and they indicate the ongoing precarious position of French Jews – and, perhaps, of members of this long despised minority group everywhere.

The resulting roundup of alleged abductors – mostly or all non-white, in French ghettoes – can also be seen in a different context in 2015. After Halimi’s kidnapping and this film was made, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to France to participate in the demonstrations following January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre and attack on a Jewish deli in Paris. In his usual bombastic manner, Netanyahu urged French Jews to relocate to Israel, in order to be safe (or at least safer).

Nine years after the Ilan Halimi tragedy, Netanyahu’s proclamation adds a whole new meaning to the startling ending of 24 Days. Wandering Jews may also be wondering: Is Netanyahu right? Let’s hope not. Is it too much to hope, as well, that all nations will eventually protect the safety of every ethnic and religious minority – including from police and vigilantes who shoot, choke and break their necks?

 24 Days is now in national release and is available on iTunes.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.