It takes a woman to make a great film about the all-male bastion of the French Foreign Legion. Claire Denis did so in her elliptical desert updating of Herman Melville's "Billy Budd" in "Beau Travail" (1999), and her fellow French director Sarah Leonor nearly equals that feat in "The Great Man." It focuses not on the poison of repressed homoeroticism of Melville's allegory, but the mystical bonds of enmity and friendship as exalted in the four millennia-old Sumerian epic, "Tale of Gilgamesh."
As narrated in a fairy tale-like voice-over recited by a child, inseparable Legionnaire comrades Hamilton (played by the Dardennes brothers' go-to everyman, Jérémie Renier) and Markov (Surho Sugaipov, who looks like B.J. Novak crossed with a bird of prey) serve in a mystically depicted Afghanistan as their outfit's legendary scouts. One night on patrol they spot the leopard that has been terrorizing local shepherds (the best big cat performance of the year) and ask their commanding officer's permission to hunt it down. He refuses. But they go anyway.
Like the great king Gilgamesh and his wild man buddy Enkidu, they go after the great beast and then things go awry. Hamilton ends up severely wounded and in the hospital, and the Legion tosses Markov out in disgrace.
One of the great appeals of the Foreign Legion, besides being the source of numerous Hollywood adventures and a romantic fantasy for adolescents, is its anonymity and promise of fresh starts. Unsurprisingly, both Hamilton and Markov are undocumented immigrants seeking nationalization by serving a five-year tour in the Legion, nor do they go by their real names. Leonor underscores this motif of interchangeable appellations by dividing the film into chapters, each titled after the different names the characters assume, making it an abridged version of Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With a Thousand Faces."
Thus, in addition to reenacting an ancient heroic myth, Leonor's film (opening Wednesday at the MFA) also investigates the contemporary problem of illegal immigration. It finds in both subjects the common themes of a search for identity and a need for community.
A heavy subtextual load for one movie to bear, but Leonor pulls it off through sheer simplicity, nuance, and visual grace. She also introduces a third character, 8-year-old Khadji (Ramzan Idiev, a Chechen version of Jean-Pierre Leaud in "The 400 Blows"), Markov's son whom he has not seen since he left for the Legion.
At first Khadji fears and despises his prodigal father, who sets him up in a tent in the middle of the Spartan apartment, where he lives while struggling to survive in Paris as an undocumented worker. Khadji hides in this womb-like refuge, but imperceptibly the familial bond intensifies, and father and son lie in the tent together, where Khadji listens to the tales of Hamilton and Markov, and writes them down so the legend can live on.
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Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.