Roma Film Festival review: Faithful (Hélier Cisterne)

Hélier Cisterne’s third feature film Faithful, which had its world premiere at the Roma Film Festival last week, is based on the book De Nos Frères Blessés by Joseph Andras, which won the prestigious Goncourt literary prize in 2016 (which the author refused, by the way). It revealed the story of a forgotten activist during the Algerian War for independence (1954-62) who was executed to set an example. Though both films on this subject (and the book) are pretty politically charged, Faithful will likely not follow the fate of Gillo Pontecorvo’s cinema classic The Battle of Algiers in being banned in France, even if both films are equally critical of French colonial involvement in Algeria and the way it tried to crush resistance in the mid- to late ’50s (obviously when The Battle of Algiers came out the wounds were still fresh). Faithful opens with a quote from former French president François Mitterrand: “Algeria is France. And who among you would not do everything in your power to protect France?” – a statement made in 1954. The closing titles reveal that Mitterrand, as Justice Minister, was responsible for 45 executions, all of them Algerians. Except for one: Fernand Iveton.

The Algerian War is a black stain on French history, a period in which the state resorted to killings and indiscriminate violence against Algerians. The resistance against French occupation was not exclusively fed by Muslim Algerians: some so-called pied-noirs, Algerians of French or other European descent born during French occupation, were part of the struggle for Algerian independence. Iveton was one of them. Born in 1926 to a Spanish mother and a French father, at the age of sixteen he followed in his father’s footsteps in becoming a member of the Algerian Communist Party. Later he became a member of the National Liberation Front, a political party that fought for Algerian independence, with an armed wing that participated in the Algerian War. In November 1956 Iveton, who worked as a turner at the Algerian Gas Company, was given the task of planting a bomb at the power station where he worked. In order not to kill anybody, he decided to place the bomb in a spot away from his co-workers and to set the timer so that the bomb would explode when the workplace was empty. However, because of his political record, Iveton was closely watched and the bomb was found before it could explode. Iveton was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death after a one-day trial.

While the historical and political angle is certainly not underplayed, Faithful‘s focus lies mainly on Iveton as a man, not as an activist, and how his actions influenced and deepened the relationship with his wife, Hélène. Played by Vicky Krieps, she is a strong and independent single mother living in Paris. Having just come out of a violent and abusive relationship, Hélène is having a night on the town when her eyes fall on Fernand Iveton (Vincent Lacoste), a guy with exceptionally good dancing skills. She chats him up and there is mutual attraction and flirtation between the two. As she gives him a ride home they have a heated discussion on communism. Based on his experiences in his home country Algeria, he equates communism with resistance. Hélène, however, as a Polish immigrant, equates it with oppression. Despite their differences they fall madly in love, so much so that Hélène follows Fernand to Algeria with her adolescent son. As they build a new life together, Fernand’s involvement with (armed) resistance in Algeria grows stronger. When he gets caught while planting the bomb, Fernand and Hélène’s happiness turns upside down. Having suddenly become the wife of a ‘traitor’, Hélène refuses to abandon Fernand to his fate and fights for his life.

Although Iveton’s activism plays a large role, Faithful‘s center is the relationship between him and Hélène. The dynamic between these two characters and the way it changes over time as both characters move from romantic playfulness to despairing devotion to each other is what anchors the film. Lacoste and Krieps provide their characters and their interplay with believable touches that give the relationship definition beyond sticking to historical fact, which probably would have caused Krieps’ character to fade. As it is, Hélène is as much a lead character as Fernand, and becomes the calm inside the storm that increasingly builds around her. The ever-enigmatic Krieps delivers an excellent performance not as a ‘strong woman behind the man’, but one who resolutely stands beside him. Opposite her, Lacoste, mainly known for comedy-dramas, expertly tracks his character’s growing belief in resistance as the only available option left. As he makes his final journey through the prison complex to the guillotine that will end his life, a reflection on how this spirited man entered Hélène’s life dancing emphasizes the breadth of Lacoste’s performance.

Cisterne’s screenplay, co-written with his partner Katell Quillévéré and Antoine Barraud, keeps the story balanced but avoids dryness by jumping back and forth in time. This smartly amps up the strength of the central couple’s relationship by contrasting their highs with their lows. Likewise Cisterne’s direction is largely devoid of any overly stylistic choices, relying on the strength of the story and of his performers to carry the film. The inclusion of the role of François Mitterrand in the Iveton affair, historically accurate, gives the film a biting political edge. Mitterrand is widely considered one of Europe’s most important statesmen of the 20th century, but that image is decisively tarnished here. Through details like this Faithful, anchored by two exquisite performances, becomes a film that resonates long after the credits roll.

Photo credit (c) Laurent Thurin-Nal