Omar Sy is a father determined to save his son from the French colonial fallout of the First World War
Dir: Mathieu Vadepied. France/Senegal. 2022. 100 mins.
A memorial to the Senegalese men forced to fight for the French during the First World War, Mathieu Vadepied’s second feature is an earnest story of a father who joins the military in order to serve alongside his son — only to discover that his plan to protect the boy may prove more complicated than he realised. Father And Soldier is filled with bitter truths — about the futility of seeking valour on the battlefield, about the impossibility of sheltering our children from the realities of the world — and Omar Sy is wonderfully weary as the concerned patriarch. But an overly melodramatic tone and some underdeveloped characters shortchange what’s potentially moving about the material.
The historical events that inspired Father And Soldier prove to be more compelling than Vadepied’s treatment of them.
Opening Un Certain Regard at Cannes, Father And Soldier is more of a family portrait than a conventional war picture: the occasional battle scenes have a stripped-down urgency. Sy, who is also a producer, gives the film star power, and French audiences may be especially drawn to this view of the country’s history of colonialism and the lives destroyed in the process.
In 1917, Bakary (Sy) has learned that French soldiers are gathering up Senegalese youth to join the frontlines of the European war, which makes him afraid for his 17-year-old son Thierno (Alassane Diong). After Thierno is captured, Bakary decides to volunteer for combat, thereby ensuring he can safeguard his child. (Bakary insists that Thierno tell no one that he is his father, though, fearing what might happen to the boy if that information gets out.) But once their white commanding officer, Lieutenant Chambreau (Jonas Bloquet), takes a shine to Thierno, giving him a position of authority, it creates unexpected tension between father and son.
Vadepied (Learn By Heart) approaches the story, which he co-wrote with Olivier Demangel, in a sombre, heartfelt manner, constantly highlighting the inequity of the French government conscripting these Senegalese men to fight in a war that means nothing to them. (Some of the troops take mild comfort in a vague promise of being granted French citizenship and a pension.)
Bakary is focused on escape, determined to rescue his son from certain death in combat, but they quickly discover how difficult that will be, prompting Thierno to conclude that the only way out is through defeating the German army. At first, Chambreau’s promotion of Thierno seems like a good thing, but to his father’s horror, the teenager seems increasingly invested in the outcome of the war. Is it because Thierno sees it as the only possibility for freedom? Or is military glory a way to assert independence from his father?
These are intriguing questions, and Sy and Diong have a nuanced rapport that suggests a father-son relationship in flux. But Father And Soldier tends toward somewhat simplistic characterisations that undercut this inherent drama. Likewise, Bloquet instills Chambreau with a touching naivety — this privileged officer proudly proclaims to Thierno that, at least on the battlefield, all men are equal — but neither his supposedly surprising backstory nor his growing bond with this teenager are especially insightful. Indeed, the historical events that inspired Father And Soldier prove to be more compelling than Vadepied’s treatment of them.
Still, it’s hard not to be affected by the picture’s final moments, despite a few predictable plot twists along the way. What the viewer takes away from Father And Soldier isn’t so much the scenario but, rather, the anguish in Sy’s eyes as Bakary watches someone else’s war imperil his beloved son. The film closes by mourning the soldiers who died because the French military decided its colonial subjects were expendable. Father And Soldier may falter, but that sad fact still stings.
Production companies: Unite, Korokoro
International sales: Gaumont, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Bruno Nahon, Omar Sy
Screenplay: Olivier Demangel, Mathieu Vadepied
Production design: Katya Wyszkop
Editing: Xavier Sirven
Cinematography: Luis Armando Arteaga
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Main cast: Omar Sy, Alassane Diong, Jonas Bloquet