Liberty, equality, fraternity?

Prejudice in France, past and present, is smartly addressed by a pair of films

<strong>Days of Glo

Two kinds of battle are being fought in Days of Glory. On the surface, there is the struggle against the Nazis in the dying stages of the Second World War. The film focuses on the North African men who enlist in the 7th Algerian Infantry Regiment of the French army, despite never having set foot on French soil. When one of them, Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), finally makes it to France late in the day, he grabs a handful of earth and inhales deeply. "If I free a country," he says, "then it's my country. Even if I never saw it before." He is the youngest and most innocent of a group that also includes Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), who has the word "unlucky" tattooed on his chest, and Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), a corporal whose military ambitions are thwarted by institutional prejudice.

Which brings us to the second, internal, conflict. Even as the new conscripts are exhorted to fight for the cause of Free France, their rights are gradually eroded, their welfare overlooked. After they emerge victorious from an encounter with German forces in Italy, it is their superiors who take the glory; the camera makes the point forcefully by drifting away from the commanding officer posing for his picture, to show just how many makeshift gravestones there are, jutting out of the hillside.

Although the battle sequences are impressive, this film is at its toughest once the gunfire has subsided and the soldiers are forced to defend their own pockets of territory within army life. Abdelkader comes into his own in such stand-offs. When he learns that the tomatoes in the canteen are reserved for indigenous French soldiers, he steps into the crate and stamps the fruit to a pulp. He wins that argument. The bigger picture, however, remains unchanged. Abdelkader doesn't get the promotion he desires and deserves, and an end title reveals that the African soldiers did not receive the full pensions due to them from the French government.

Days of Glory has had a positive influence in this respect - it was directly responsible for Jacques Chirac bringing all war pensions into line with those paid to French veterans. But, for all its fury and power, the picture remains necessarily open-ended: any conclusion is coloured by our knowledge that people like Abdelkader would soon be fighting again, with the Algerian war of independence less than a decade away. The film's director and co-writer, Rachid Bouchareb, is planning to address that subject in his next picture. It is hard to imagine how history could be in safer hands.

We remain in France, and amid prejudice, for the documentary Beyond Hatred. In September 2002, three skinheads roamed Reims in search of an Arab to attack. Instead, they found 29-year-old François Chenu, whom they beat in a frenzied homophobic assault before dumping him in a pond where he drowned. The film catches up with the Chenu family two years later as they prepare for the murder trial and pick over their memories. Some unusual but significant choices have been made by the director, Olivier Meyrou - François is not shown on screen and nor are his killers, which has the effect of uniting them in a kind of democratic anonymity.

While it is no exaggeration to describe the compassion of the Chenus as breathtaking, Meyrou's own achievement in capturing it on screen should not be undervalued. He displays a flawless instinct for illuminating images, nowhere more so than in the brilliant static sequence in éo Legrange Park, where François died. For eight minutes, the camera stays fixed as we listen to the voice of his sister recalling everything, from her initial attempts to phone her brother on the weekend of his death to her journey to identify his body. We become so absorbed in her words that we may not even notice dusk descending on the park, the grainy murk broken only by the occasional jogger, and the stubbornly optimistic glow of a street lamp.

Pick of the week

Inland Empire (15)
dir: David LynchTake a friend along to help you work out what it all means.

Fur: an imaginary portrait of Diane Arbus (15)
dir: Steven Shainberg
Nicole Kidman is the photographer, Robert Downey Jr her hairy subject, in this "fictionalised" portrait.

Meet the Robinsons (U)
dir: Stephen J Anderson
Futuristic Disney adventure for the school holidays. Also in 3D.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis