Eight years before the horrific attack on Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent massacres of Jews in Paris by Islamist terrorists, a similar brutal crime outraged Paris. On Jan. 20, 2006 a gang kidnapped 23-year-old Ilan Halimi (Syrus Shahidi), a Jewish cellphone store clerk, held him prisoner, and tortured him for 24 days. During that time they tormented his family with hundreds of phone calls with erratic demands for ransom, threats, and insults. They picked Halim because he was Jewish, ostensibly because “Jews have money.” It was the first such anti-Semitic crime in France since the Holocaust.
In her book, “24 Days: the True Story of the Ilan Halimi Affair,” Ilan’s mother, Ruth Halimi (Zabou Breitman), wanted his story to be “a wake-up call” to those who think the days of such racially motivated violence are a thing of the past. Subsequent events have proven her right.
Nonetheless, Alexandre Arcady’s adaptation of the book awkwardly connects the issue of rising anti-Semitism to this particular crime. He suggests that had the police acknowledged and publicized the racist motivation from the beginning, the case would likely have been resolved. By insisting on keeping the Halimis and other members of the Jewish community silent, and by attempting to psychologically manipulate the kidnappers, the film argues that police blew the case.
Perhaps. But how this might have been accomplished is not explained. The head of the kidnapping gang, “Django” (Tony Harrisson), is a psychopath beyond reasoning. His minions are riff-raff from the slums motivated by greed, sadism, and fear. According to the police, given the instability of the circumstances, and the lack of information, publicity would have been disastrous.
Not only does Arcady not make clear what the alternative to the official strategy might have been, he films their procedures like a top-notch episode of “Law and Order” — right down to the scene-ending two-note punctuation. What viewer of that show, or “CSI,” is going to doubt that the police know what they’re doing? Ilan’s father, Didier (Pascal Elbé), thinks they’re right and fully cooperates with them, but then he’s been divorced from Ruth and estranged from the family for 20 years — a detail inadequately developed. Perhaps he was a dupe. But Ruth’s outbursts of rage and recrimination and occasional defiance don’t seem to help much, either.
As a suspenseful true crime story, “24 Days” succeeds. As a warning against the ever present dangers of anti-Semitism, it is eloquent and disturbing. It’s in combining the two that Arcady mishandles the case.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.