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Lina Ventura gives a wonderfully subtle performance as a resistance fighter in Jean-Pierre Melville’s ARMY OF SHADOWS

L’ARMÉE DES OMBRES (ARMY OF SHADOWS) (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th St. at Amsterdam Ave.
Monday, March 26, 3:15
Series runs through March 29

Based on the novel by Joseph Kessel (Belle de Jour), Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 WWII drama Army of Shadows got its first U.S. theatrical release some thirty-five years later, in a restored 35mm print courtesy of Rialto Pictures and supervised by the film’s cinematographer, Pierre Lhomme, who shot it in a beautiful blue-gray palette. The film centers on a small group of French resistance fighters, including shadowy leader Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), the smart and determined Mathilde (Simone Signoret), the nervous Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the steady and dependable Felix (Paul Crauchet), the stocky Le Bison (Christian Barbier), the well-named Le Masque (Claude Mann), and the unflappable and practical Gerbier (Lino Ventura). Although Melville, who was a resistance fighter as well, wants the film to be his personal masterpiece, he is too close to the material, leaving large gaps in the narrative and giving too much time to scenes that don’t deserve them. He took offense at the idea that he portrayed the group of fighters as gangsters, yet what shows up on the screen is often more film noir than war movie. However, there are some glorious sections of Army of Shadows, including Gerbier’s escape from a Vichy camp, the execution of a traitor to the cause, and a tense Mission Impossible–like (the TV series, not the Tom Cruise vehicles) attempt to free the imprisoned Felix. But most of all there is Ventura, who gives an amazingly subtle performance that makes the overly long film (nearly two and a half hours) worth seeing all by itself. Army of Shadows is screening March 26 as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “15 for 15: Celebrating Rialto Pictures” series honoring the fifteenth anniversary of the art-house distributor founded by Film Forum programmer extraordinaire Bruce Goldstein.

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