AJFF Review: “24 Days” (**½)

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Zabou Breitman stars as Ruth Halimi in “24 Days”

Had I read anything about “24 Days” before pressing play, I might have avoided the ignorance I’ll now spare you: it’s a true story. On January 21, 2006, Ilan Halimi was kidnapped for ransom in Paris, France. His captors equated Jewish heritage with wealth, assuming the ransom would be easy to secure. But the Halimis, a secretary and a shop owner, are not rich, and the unsuccessful negotiations spanned—you guessed it—twenty-four days. By the time Ilan was released, he had been starved, tortured, burned, and beaten, his survival still at stake. In “24 Days,” Director Alexandre Arcady adapts the book Ilan’s mother cowrote about her family’s experience with the French police as they led an investigation blind to anti-Semitism.

The film opens on acclaimed French actress Zabou Breitman. She introduces herself as Ruth Halimi and foretells the day her life “suddenly fell apart.” “How could something like this happen in Paris in 2006?” she says. “It happened to me, but it could have happened to anybody.” Next we are in Ruth Halimi’s home while she prepares the Sabbath meal. We meet Ilan and Yael, two of her three children (played by Syrus Shahidi and Alka Balbir), and listen to Ilan’s half of a series of phone calls. He attempts to make plans with his buddy Karim and learns his girlfriend Mony won’t be home until late. The third call, accompanied by a shift in music, is from a girl named Emma. She wants to meet. Tonight. Ilan smiles to himself. He tells Mony he’s meeting his friend Jéremie, and a seemingly straightforward deception has fallen into place.

But Mony is not the victim. Ilan and Emma share dessert at a local cafe and begin the walk back to Emma’s apartment, but they never make it. A gang of masked men attacks Ilan and stuffs him in the trunk of their car. Emma runs off, her job complete. The next morning, Ilan’s family receives a desperate, panicked call from Mony—Ilan never came over like he said he would, and she’s received an email from his captors. They want 450,000 francs in exchange for Ilan. The family falls apart.

Enter Didier Halimi, Ilan’s father (played by Pascal Elbé). Following instructions from the French police, he conducts all phone interactions with the man who won’t stop calling: Youssouf Fofana (Tony Harrisson). Fofana is known to those beneath him as “Django,” an Ivory Coast citizen and foreboding criminal leader. What follows is ninety minutes of suspense in varying intensity. Where is Ilan? Where is Django? How will the family secure the ransom money? Can the police find the gang before they hurt Ilan? Or worse?

“24 Days” is a decent film. Winner of the Jerusalem International Film Festival’s Jewish Experience Award, its merit is due more to its brave portrayal of race relations in France than it is to direction, photography, music, or performance. While the acting by Breitman and Elbé is emotional and consistent, the real stars are Jacques Gamblin and Sylvie Testud, lead detective Delcour and lead negotiator Farell respectively. As a result, I cared more for the police force than for the suffering parents. It’s not that Breitman or Elbé were unconvincing. It’s that I expected every angle their performances delivered. The film’s attention to true events forces it to drag like the real search did, and somewhere in the middle of the film, I stopped caring about whether or not they found him. I was too distracted by questions to which I still have no answers: had the French police force never encountered a kidnapping before? Why were they so confused, inefficient, and emotionally involved? Was this Django’s first hostage? Why was he so indecisive, volatile, and annoying? The depiction of a crisis should evoke much more than indifference. Couple this disappointment with an unremarkable score and sloppy, jarring scene changes, and the film is left with little more than its history to stand on.

Director and writer Alexandre Arcady is no amateur, having directed or produced almost twenty films since 1979, but I almost wish he was. “24 Days” is a good effort that would yield little gravity if it weren’t a true story. I would welcome the opportunity to see more from Testud, Elbé, Breitman, or Gamblin (in that order) under different direction. There’s always next year.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

“24 Days” has five showings at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, including at Gen-Y Night on January 29th. Buy tickets here.

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