The spaces of “La Désintégration” are so tight and closed it’s a wonder any of the characters are able to breathe. Very seldom does Philippe Faucon’s camera frame them in shots that display more than their torsos or more than a fraction of their environment. Indeed, many shots are semi-subjective shots of people’s faces, shot from another person’s shoulder. Initially, I felt it was a weakness on the film’s part to not be more diverse in its cinematic grammar. As the film progressed, I began to understand Faucon’s choices as effective translations of the three protagonist’s sense of oppression, both psychological and political, as their feelings of alienation from French society enables charismatic Islamic fundamentalist preacher Djamel (Yassine Azzouz) to close their minds – and thus their spatial perceptions – even further so that they know and obey only the doctrine of jihad.
Unfortunately, this is something of a double-edged compliment towards the film, as the strength of this stylistic choice is facilitated by weaknesses within its screenplay. The three main characters are Ali (Rashid Debbouze, brother of talented actor and comedian Jamel Debbouze), Nasser (Mohamed Nachit) and convert Hamza, formely known as Nico (Ymanol Perset). However, it is through Ali’s eyes that most of the story is told and it is his journey towards indoctrination and radicalization that is the most detailed. It is there that the screenplay falters in its determination of the film’s course.
For a film who has such a politically-charged subject matter as terrorism for its theme, there are – generally speaking – two directions to take: Either make a film that focuses on individual human beings that exist outside of the topic and have complex reasons of their own for their crimes beyond the obvious political/religious ideology, or make a thesis-film with the purpose of explaining to the audience how people become indoctrinated into evil. Bruno Dumont’s masterful “Hadewijch”, which followed a similar premise of indoctrination into jihad without really being about terrorism or religion but rather about a very complex character, took the former option and became a great work of art because of it. “La Désintégration” takes the latter approach, and therein lays its failure, as it soon becomes obvious that Faucon does not have much of interest or value to say about what causes Islamic terrorism.
The beginning of the film repeatedly emphasizes the racism and discrimination faced by Arab Muslims in France. Ali sends over 60 CVs for an internship but gets no reply and has to content himself with menial jobs. He quits his course after an angry outburst over the greater difficulty black and Arab students have in finding jobs compared to whites. His mother works hard as a cleaning lady in a hotel, and complains about her difficult working conditions in comparison to her – unseen, possibly white – coworkers. Discrimination is a sad, indisputable and unfair fact of life for non-whites in white-majority countries, and it becomes even more difficult for them to find good jobs in economically troubled times such as these. Djamel uses it as a key element to indoctrinate his three victims, by convincing them that French society only sees them as tools and will never accept them as equals.
To be sure, unemployment and discrimination can contribute to further alienation and thus greater susceptibility to negative influences, but Faucon seems to believe they’re the primary causes of terrorism. A position that simply doesn’t hold water in the face of facts: East and Southeast Asian Buddhists and Christians as well as South Asian Hindus and Sikhs and black Christians live in similarly underprivileged economic conditions and face similar racial discrimination but you don’t see many of them calling for holy war or demanding religious exemptions and parallel societies. Furthermore, the perpetrators of such acts of terror as the London bombings of 2005, the Boston Marathon bombing and 9/11 were college-educated and from a middle-class background. Philippe Faucon never dares to consider the idea that there might actually be something inherently wrong with Islam itself as a religion and as a culture, or that equal coexistence between Islamic culture and Western culture in a single nation may be impossible, even though many opportunities are presented for him to do so.
Indeed, many clues at other sources of the boys’ turn to jihad come at the beginning: When young Arab boys tell Nasser of a man who called them “filthy Arabs” after they made marks on his car, Nasser’s reaction is to confront him and beat him up for it. Why such a disproportionately violent response to racial abuse that wasn’t even directed towards him? More interesting – and yet damningly unexplored – is the character of Ali’s mother (Zahra Addioui). A kind, hard-working, long-suffering and devout Muslim woman, the mother is nevertheless stuck in old traditional ways of thinking. She speaks mostly in Arabic, wears a hijab in almost every scene and her reaction to Ali’s successful and assimilated older brother’s relationship with a white non-Muslim French woman is both telling and complex: She refers to her as “French”, as opposed to “Arab” – indicating a self-exclusion from French culture and society, and deplores the fact that her son eats pork and does not behave religiously. Yet she accepts his relationship, if not fully endorsing it. When his fiancée is introduced, she talks to her with nervous politeness and respect. And when the previously irreligious Ali starts displaying his radicalization by refusing to shake his brother’s fiancée’s hand and calling his sister a whore for not wearing a veil, she calls him out on it, and tries to explain to him that Islam is about respect and sharing. But the latter scene ends quickly and her words ring hollow.
Thus it becomes apparent that Ali’s mother’s ambivalence towards French culture and society, her religious devotion and reluctance to call herself French, may have played a great part in conditioning her son to be susceptible to radicalization. This is further supported by the fact that her eldest son succeeded by openly challenging her religious orthodoxy. But it isn’t clear Faucon himself even realizes that. He remains uncritical of the fact that his three protagonists clearly lack a sense of personal responsibility and blame everybody but themselves for their problems.
These weaknesses aside, if there is one thing that Faucon does seem to understand and certainly depicts convincingly, it’s the process of indoctrination. Djamel is like a hawk observing its prey before striking. Never raising his voice one octave, he speaks very softly with velvet tones, making his simplistic condemnation of non-Muslim society and defense of jihad as just retribution for perceived wrongs more palpable. He starts by simply asking Ali if he’s had any luck finding an internship, undermining him bit by bit with his constant casual reminders of his failure. Once the defenses are weakened, he can gently infiltrate him as would a virus. As Ali’s brother astutely points out, Djamel is a master at mixing truth with falsehoods in order to make the falsehoods seep in more easily. Yassine Azzouz does a truly chilling job at conveying this. He brings to mind images of Richard Burton’s terrifying performance as O’Brien in Michael Radford’s masterful adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984”, particularly scenes in which he tortures John Hurt’s Winston Smith while explaining the absolute supremacy of the Party in calm, almost fatherly tones.
In the screenplay’s gallery of two-dimensional characters, his mysterious nature makes him perhaps the most successful of all. All other characters, particularly Ali’s family, are archetypes intended to represent real-life counterparts: Ali is clearly meant to represent the average Muslim youth from Muslim-majority areas. Ali’s brother and sister represent the assimilated westernized Muslims, who have chosen French culture over Islamic culture and overcome great hardships to succeed. His mother, the most complex and potentially rich of all characters, embodies the very paradox that constitutes the expression “western Muslim”. It would perhaps have been more challenging and ultimately satisfying to tell the story through her own eyes, and leave her son and his friends’ journey to the dark side up to the viewer’s imagination.