Dir: Philippe Haim. France. 2008. 100 mins.
If French political thriller Secrets of State were any more topical, it would be about what you ate for breakfast. This fast-paced and meticulously-researched tale shows the recruitment and training of a young female Secret Service operative alongside a parallel story about how an unlikely but deadly young male terrorist is created. Each is skilfully manipulated for a cause.
This carefully layered, mostly-plausible tale boasts several suspenseful set pieces. Although it requires near-exhausting concentration to absorb its heady mix of information and high-stakes activity, Secrets of State should appeal to audiences who liked the tone and content of The Interpreter, The Manchurian Candidate remake, or Syriana and would enjoy a Euro-take on the same theme.
Al Barad (Abkarian), a Westernised terrorist posing as a businessman, twists Islamic tenets for political ends. Wine broker Alex (Lanvin) is a high-ranking counter-terrorism specialist, bending or ignoring the law to thwart his opponents and keep France secure.
Both sides are playing a deadly game of chess that regularly requires new human playing pieces - a suicide bomber here, a sexy decoy there. Attractive young Diane (Giocante), who dabbled as a high-priced call girl prior to pursuing a degree in Arabic, is artfully recruited by Alex almost before she knows what hit her.
Training exercises - how to give adversaries the slip, resist interrogation, etc. - convince us that the External Security academy is a pretty cool school and being a secret agent an exciting lifestyle. Diane's assignment to seduce Al Barad on his home turf may make her feel more alive but could easily lead to her death.
Meanwhile petty drug dealer Pierre (Duvauchelle) is arrested and sent to prison. As the handsome white lad is emotionally and physically vulnerable, he's ripe for the picking. Under fellow inmate Aziz's (Belghazi) manipulative guidance, Pierre converts to Islam, convinced he's found a caring surrogate family. Upon release he attends terrorist boot camp, preparing to serve his handlers on an eventual mission.
Two complex Arab characters -- smart, brave field operative Leila (Brakni) and intelligence officer Ahmed (Nebbou), a practicing Muslim whose allegiance to France is horrifically tested -- are a fine departure from movie stereotypes. Beyond their inherent importance to the script, Leila and Ahmed are a good example for other screenwriters striving to be politically savvy without being politically correct.
A passage in which various specialists - played by the film's seven eminent real-life consultants - weigh in on a coded threat, gives viewers a taste of the crucial decisions constantly being made based on a combination of educated guesses and hard-won research. Little in co-screenwriter/director Philippe Haim's previous work (claustrophobic two-hander Barracuda and live-action comic book adaptation The Daltons) pointed to such a serious and ambitious theme, but he's definitely up to the task. Two thirds of the sharply-edited film are hand held, creating immediacy and sweeping momentum.
Although it's not hard to tell the good guys from the bad, there are plenty of grey areas in their all-too-convincing motivations. Both sides use sophisticated indoctrination techniques, and, ideology aside, terrorists and secret agents seem to have a lot in common.
Morocco stands in credibly here for Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Jordan.
France 3 Cinema
france 2 Cinema
(33) 1 46 40 46 42
based on an idea by Philippe Haim