Father And Soldier Review: Omar Sy Delivers A Strong Performance In A Middling War Movie [Cannes]

"Father and Soldier" features a strong and emotional performance by Omar Sy in a story that helps shine a light on an important and overlooked part of history, raising some big questions about colonialism and imperialism in war. Sadly, the film abandons this premise in order to follow a cookie-cutter story of a father struggling to shelter his son from the dangers of the world, despite his determination to venture out into it.

In 1917, World War I is raging on, bodies are dropping like flies, and incompetent commanders are sending young men to die in pointless battles. In remote Senegal, however, the war comes in the form of French soldiers kidnapping young boys from villages, enlisting them, and forcing them to fight in a foreign land for foreign powers. "Father and Soldier" centers on Bakary Diallo (Omar Sy), a man who voluntarily enlists in order to keep his 17-year-old son Thierno (Alassane Diong) safe from the horrors of a war he is forced to fight in.

Omar Sy continues to show he is one of the most charming leading men in cinema. His Diallo is equal parts intimidating and heartbreaking, a man who could easily take down a whole battalion but who instead uses his physicality to protect his son from harm like he was Superman. The problem is that he can't stop all bullets, and escaping the front lines is easier said than done, with police and patrols executing any deserters on sight. 

To make matters worse, white French lieutenant Chambreau (Jonas Bloquet) has taken a liking to Thierno and makes him part of his inner circle. This makes Thierno start to defy his father as he begins to enjoy the freedom and authority that come with his new post, an opportunity to find out what kind of man he is without standing in his father's shadow.

A wasted opportunity

Despite the WWI setting, we barely visit the trenches or see much fighting. Instead, "Father and Soldier" focuses on the downtime spent at a nearby village waiting for orders, sitting around while higher-ups decide the fate of these men — all while Diallo keeps trying to find a smuggler to take him and his son back home. When we do see some action, it lacks any urgency or danger. The camera is completely uninterested in anything except the immediacy of Thierno and Bakary's fear, covering the frame in smoke from explosions that make the audience as disoriented as the characters.

That being said, the film does have some interesting ideas about the futility of seeking glory on the battlefield, and the fallacy of comrades at arms lacking inequality — especially when the one saying so is a white commander who wines and dines while his comrades fight for scraps. "Father and Son" is at its best when it interrogates France's colonial history and its treatment of African soldiers, as we see those in command wave the promise of honorary French citizenship to keep the soldiers motivated, despite sending them straight to the front lines in suicide mission after suicide mission, and soldiers dreaming to earn a pension and retiring in France where more opportunities await them.

Omar Sy deserves better

When the film touches on those concepts, it teases a fascinating movie about a dark chapter in French history, but it is not interested in that. Director Mathieu Vadepied abandons every thread he opens, quickly setting the story about an army literally made up of kidnapped young men in favor of an overplayed father and son dynamic we've seen dozens of times before. Even if "Father and Son" is shot partially in Senegal with Senegalese actors speaking Fula, there's no getting around the fact that Vadepied is a white French man, and his script seems either too embarrassed or too afraid to properly explore the ramifications of the premise it presents. There is virtually nothing that distinguishes these characters from those in any other WWI movie, but this film wants you to think it is doing something unique when it is not.

By the time credits roll, "Father and Son" brings it all back to a poignant message about accountability for the horrors France committed during the war, acknowledging the forgotten soldiers of the African colonies. If only it didn't waste 109 minutes to get there.

/Film rating: 6 out of 10

"Father and Son" premiered as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022.