From the opening scene, “24 Days,” directed by Alexandre Arcady (“What the Day Owes the Night”) and released last April, does not let you forget that it’s not just a crime drama; it’s the recreation of a horrifying and very true event. Following the kidnapping and eventual death of young Frenchman Ilan Halimi, the victim of a vicious 2006 anti-Semitic crime that sparked a series of massive protests, the film works to further personalize the cataclysmic event and remind its audience that, at the heart of this larger issue of French anti-Semitism, there was one young man and his family.
The State Theater
New Light Films
After Shabbat dinner in January 2006, Ilan Halimi (Syrus Shahidi, “Quantum Love”) leaves to get drinks with a mysterious girl he met earlier that day at work. His family, who believes he’s with his girlfriend, thinks little of his late night. While wondering why he isn’t at lunch the next day, his family receives a harrowing e-mail demanding an impossible ransom in exchange for Ilan’s life. They are set on a turbulent and emotionally charged path, negotiating with the police and the large network of kidnappers for over three weeks before Ilan is released unexpectedly, dying en route to the hospital from injuries sustained after weeks of torture.
A gripping story in itself, the narrative structure of the film is straightforward and entirely plot-driven, forcing the viewer to experience the story alongside the family and kidnappers as changes are made to the case. The focus shifts chronologically between the two groups as information about Ilan’s captors is revealed and the police learn more about the large network of criminals, from the bottom-tier beautiful “lures” (attractive women hired as bait to entice their targets and get them alone) and mindless musclemen all the way to a ruthless mastermind working from the Ivory Coast. This focus seems to detract from the experiences of the family and risks shifting our sympathies to the lower-tier criminals coerced into the group out of financial necessity. We experience the family’s life through the structure of major plot points, and while this does force the viewer to experience every facet of the horrifying case, it also ends up almost depersonalizing the family as each new piece of information is presented in the same way as the last. It’s easy to become emotionally numb to the barrage of tormenting twists, and there’s little room to breathe between the concentration of impactful scenes, detracting from the harrowing performances from Ilan’s parents and sisters.
It’s Ilan’s mother, Ruth Halimi (Zabou Breitman, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life”), who reclaims the film’s humanity with bookended direct addresses to the audience. While the film seems to lose its focus in the middle and edge into the realm of crime dramas, these moments of vulnerable honesty effectively bring the emphasis back on Ilan’s impact on the French-Jewish community and reminds its audience that this high-intensity story isn’t a trick for the screen, it’s an attempt to capture the truth of unbelievable real life events. Although Ilan is seen throughout the film during his imprisonment, we know little about him and are left to understand his character through the eyes of his family as they simultaneously fight for his life and mourn the loss of their son, brother and friend. Because of this, the film’s success hinges on our ability to connect with those most invested in his survival. After watching the story evolve from the family’s initial and very personal shock to the massive riots against anti-Semitic crimes, the appearance of Ruth at the open and close of the story allows viewers to re-contextualize the events they have watched be blown to epic proportions, keeping the story from becoming commoditized on screen and retain its humanity.