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Joyeux Noël

Movies | This imperfect but moving film is a nominee for best foreign film

Issue: "Faculty follies," April 29, 2006

Of all the films made around the world each year, only five are nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Yet American audiences have a hard time finding even those five-supposedly the best that world cinema has to offer-at the local theater.

The imperfect but moving Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas), from France, is a 2006 nominee now making its way into wider release. Despite one undermining flaw the film is worth a trip to the theater (note: there is some brief nudity), even if that means trekking to an artsy-as in, dingy-theater in one of the seedier parts of town.

The movie is set on Christmas Eve, 1914. The Great War, World War I, had been raging for five months, and would continue for another four years. But, according to many firsthand accounts, a remarkable, uneasy, informal truce occurred in several places along the Western Front that cold winter's night.

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Joyeux Noël uses that truce to focus fictionally on one small pocket of soldiers: on one side, French and Scottish regiments; on the other, German. As the mournful sound of a carol played by a lone bagpiper drifts across the divide, a German tenor (Benno Fürmann) lends his voice to the song.

Before long, the German is carrying a small, candle-lit Christmas tree toward the enemy trench. Rather than opening fire, Scottish, then French, soldiers tentatively make their way too toward the center. Soon, the three officers in charge (Guillaume Canet, Daniel Brühl, and Alex Ferns, all excellent) are meeting and awkwardly discussing a ceasefire, and the truce develops its own life among the enlisted soldiers. An evening mass recited by a Scottish priest leads to Christmas Day soccer games and proper burial of the many dead.

The film's quiet attempts to humanize these men of war are moving. The images of uncomfortably expressed understanding, and even friendship, are quite powerful, particularly when combined with beautiful, a cappella renditions of Silent Night, Ave Maria, and Adeste Fideles. But the film undermines its own purpose by replacing the "us vs. them" barbarism it so detests with another form of the same, simply redirected.

Joyeux Noël points an accusing finger at authority of all stripes-generals, politicians, bishops. The message of loving one's enemy becomes diluted by the film's unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of an enemy on the battlefield. Still, Joyeux Noël is a powerful, thought-provoking film.

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