A tense, piercing psychological drama, French Orizzonti entry The Third War premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival without causing too many ripples among jurors or critics. Still, it is an extremely accomplished feature debut from director Giovanni Aloi, centered around a single, powerful idea – aiming to examine just how vast the gulf between danger and paranoia really is, and how certain visual signifiers can short circuit our entire understanding of reality. Léo, the central character, is a young recruit (Anthony Bajon has the perfect features to infuse the character with childlike vulnerability) in the French Army just out of basic training and assigned to a unit which patrols the streets of Paris and protects sensitive targets. Next to him are Hicham, a towering, more experienced officer whose tales of past military glory might just not be 100% truthful, and team leader Coline, well-respected by her men but overlooked by her superiors, and hiding the kind of secrets the Army would like to believe itself equipped to handle but failing miserably at it.
Italian-born but France-based, Aloi returns time and again to framing the soldiers at odds with their surroundings, suggesting how incongruous they look and yet how normalized they are to us all: operators in full assault gear stationing in streets that can provide them with no conflict, at least in the conventional sense of the word. Despite its firm focus on the psychological conditions of the soldiers, The Third War also objectifies them, visually operating as a sort of reverse shot from the point of view of the public. What do these soldiers see while they wait and scan their surroundings? How do they decode reality and separate what’s true from what’s imagined? Military iconography – weapons, gear, the barracks – is deployed as a rhythmic key that progressively erodes meaning, echoing something like Beau Travail, although Aloi’s scope is of course much narrower and less nuanced than Claire Denis’.
It is also inextricably linked to urban space, like Beau Travail was to the removed, alienating isolation of the Foreign Legion. Paris throbs and pushes against Léo’s skin, capitalizing on the unique current identity of a city on which both terrorism and domestic social unrest have left a mark in recent years. In this context, the military becomes the flipside of the police – the former looking for the invisible, the latter lashing out at the visible. Splicing law and order raises fundamental questions though, and inevitably pits the two against each other with competing visions of what it means to negotiate with the city’s soul. The Third War intuitively and effectively illuminates these issues throughout, and even in a climax which doesn’t quite work structurally and emotionally, it still pays off the main theme by using protests to bring the military and the police face to face.
If the rifle is enough to make the soldier – the ‘petit Famas’ that a girl at a club invokes to defuse Léo’s flirty posturing – then it is perhaps enough to turn civilians into enemies as well. Such persistent, unsolvable tension is lodged in the conscience of contemporary society, and Aloi, with surprising clarity, manages to stare at it long enough to detect just how toxic it might be.