In Movies & TV

"Joyeux Noel" carries important message

What if there was a war but no one played along? That's a question that the new French film, "Joyeux Noel" ("Merry Christmas") posits.

Admittedly, when the film opens and it's clear that this is another World War I movie, many will be unable to stifle a groan as they prepare to endure another two hours of blood-filled trenches and corpse-littered battlefields. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "A Very Long Engagement," arrived less than two years ago, after all.

The first half of the film -- based on a true story -- goes pretty much according to plan as we meet the young German, French and Scottish commanders and their men as they battle to take a strategically important farm near the French/German border in 1914.

We meet a Scots priest who is devoted to his fellow soldiers and shouldn't even be at the front, as he is a stretcher bearer. We meet quirky French barber who hails from just a mile away from the farm and sets his alarm clock to chime each morning as a reminder of his habitual 10 a.m. coffee with maman. We meet the famous German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) who is drafted into the war, although many appear to believe that he volunteered.

But at just about the halfway point in this two-hour film, something changes. It is Christmas Eve and the Scots have fired up their bagpipes. Next, Sprink breaks into song. The trenches are so close that all sides can hear the music and when Sprink intones the opening verse of "Silent Night," the pipers begin to accompany him.

Music serves as a bridge and the three commanders get together and agree to a Christmas Eve truce. Soon all the men are navigating the bodies of fallen soldiers to share drinks, show photos of their wives and girlfriends and worship together.

The next morning they are back in their trenches but nothing is the same and each side now sees the other as more than simply an enemy. Can their new understanding lead to anything meaningful on a larger scale in this bloody conflict?

"Joyeux Noel" is well acted and, except for the slow-moving first half, finely directed and written by Christian Carion. The premise is a good one and the second half of the film is enjoyable and at times inspiring and carries a fine message. It is certainly for these reasons that the film was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign language pic.

But many viewers might never make it that far, finding themselves unable to endure the long set-up.

"Joyeux Noel" opens Friday, March 31 at Landmark's Downer Theatre.


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