Review: Smugglers’ Songs
March 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
To call Louis Mandrin the Robin Hood of France is not inaccurate – as a bonus, Mandrin actually existed – but that is only part of the story as conveyed in Rabah Ameur-ZaÏmeche’s “Smugglers’ Songs (Les Chants de Mandrin),” which turns its back on biography in the name of examining the meticulous effort involved in spontaneous legends.
Mandrin was a renowned highwayman who waged a war against the corrupt tax collectors of the royal government in the mid-18th century, who were allowed to exact any amount from citizens regardless of how much was going to the French government.
Wanted for murder, Mandrin began his legendary war following the executions of his friend and his brother, eventually joining a group of smugglers that he soon became the leader of.
His popularity displeased the French authorities – no surprise there – and it was only through betrayal that they captured and executed Mandrin. Like so many agents of oppression, they seemed to think that squashing the source of the stories was as good as ending the story itself, but “Smugglers’ Songs” traces the efforts of Mandrin’s compatriots and admirers in spreading word of his feats further, even after his body remain dead on a Catherine Wheel following public torture.
Ameur-ZaÏmeche’s film concerns itself with the spread of songs, stories and biography of Mandrin following that execution - what it meant for something to “go viral” in 1755. In order for that to happen, a network needed to forged, and Ameur-ZaÏmeche follows that in the form of soldiers deserting their posts, Marquises devoted to writing the biography of a thief and simple peddlers willing to sell dangerous literature with their other wares. It is the story of propaganda, true, but it’s propaganda against the state, in control of moneyed thieves – admirable, populist propaganda that boasts a direct line to current day dissent.
Whether Ameur-ZaÏmeche could have known it at the time he made the film, the efforts of the Mandrins, as the followers were called, evoke the Occupy movement, as well as the Arab Spring.
Certainly the wave of discontent and rebellion that sparked the beginning of that was in the air, the revolutionary efforts of old are always of interest, anyhow. It’s a timely exploration, and one that understands that an idea – equality – is really bigger than one man, one figurehead, but the result of collective and passionate effort.
What’s striking is that Ameur-ZaÏmeche’s effort is the opposite of the kinetic explosion that the protests last year provided, and that does well to illustrate just how hard rebellion was 250 years ago. It wasn’t just a matter of showing up to a rally, but of living as outlaws under the sky of tyranny, placing your tents, being a presence, infiltrating the localities of the norm in society – and the Mandrins did all that.
It’s still being done today in the name of the same issue – income equality and the unfair influence of money – and “Smugglers’ Songs” is a precise, evocative examination of what it takes to not only keep spirit alive, but nurture it to growth before it is stamped out.