I just saw this terrific film by Merzak Allouache (English title: ‘The Repentant’; in Arabic: التائب). It is Allouache’s best film ever IMO and one of the best ever to come out of Algeria (and is certainly the best ever Algerian-directed film with a political theme). The “repentant” is a young Islamist fighter who, benefiting from the 1999 law conferring amnesty on members of armed Islamist groups (and updated in 2005), flees the maquis, turns himself into the authorities—who press him into being an informer—, and tries to reintegrate into civilian life, while seeking to settle an affair from his years as a guerrilla/terrorist, the details of which are only revealed toward the end. It’s a riveting film and with an excellent screenplay that bears out the complexity of the Algerian sale guerre—of armed Islamists vs. the Algerian state—of the past two decades. There are no caricatures, either with the characters or the politics. And the acting is first-rate, as is the cinematography (it’s set in the western High Plateau, mainly in El Bayadh).
I normally pay no attention to reviews of Algerian films, as the critics (French, American, etc) lack the requisite knowledge of Algeria to properly assess what they’ve seen. And this one presents additional challenges, as any description of the plot will almost inevitably contain spoilers (as did, e.g., Le Monde’s review, which basically gave the whole thing away). The pic has been reviewed by two American critics, who saw it at Cannes last year; one, from The Hollywood Reporter, was off-the-wall; the other review, by Jay Weissberg in Variety, absolutely, totally nailed it. It’s an excellent review and tells the reader precisely what s/he needs to know about the film, and without spoilers. I couldn’t have written it better myself. Here it is
A beautifully made, deeply emotional drama that catches auds up in its troubled protags’ lives, all the way to a staggering finale.
After several misfires, Merzak Allouache delivers not just his best film of the past decade, but arguably his best in 36 years in the helmer’s seat. Tracking a former jihadist and a separated couple whose lives were destroyed five years earlier, “The Repentant” is a beautifully made, deeply emotional drama that catches auds up in its troubled protags’ lives, all the way to a staggering finale. Though cinema is awash in Islamic fundamentalist themes, Allouache goes beyond mere issues with his intimate approach and narrowed focus. This is one Algerian movie that could finally see worldwide exposure, including Stateside.
Allouache not only strips the story down to basics but reduces the exposition: Background details are spare, and what’s not said is more powerful than what is. This suppression is tied to the helmer’s message of a country paralyzed by a self-imposed gag order, in which the past remains an unbearable weight that cannot be discussed. But as “The Repentant” demonstrates, the past is very much alive, and a refusal to confront it head-on allows fear, corruption, and fanaticism to thrive.
In the late 1990s, the Algerian government attempted to end years of terrorism by offering jihadists amnesty. Islamic fighters came down from their hideouts, registered with the authorities as “repentants,” and were integrated into society. Rachid (Nabil Asli) runs away from his fundamentalist compatriots in the mountain and reports to the cops; the police chief, Redouane (Mohamed Takiret), gets him a job with embittered cafe owner Salah (Hacene Benzerari), and Rachid appears to be fitting into normal life.
Then, he meets pharmacist Lakhdar (Khaled Benaissa). What actually transpires between these two isn’t seen or heard: first a one-sided phone call that visibly upsets Lakhdar, then a meeting that isn’t shown. What’s clear is Lakhdar’s intense isolation: He lives in a bare apartment, drinking copious amounts of wine and watching Chinese television at night, though presumably he doesn’t understand the language. Like everything else in his life, the boob tube merely fills the hours, since Lakhdar’s only engagement is with his inner demons.
After meeting Rachid, he calls his ex-wife, Djamila (Adila Bendimerad), who angrily makes the long drive to see him. They exude tension when together, uncertain how to behave and unsure if the chasm between them can be bridged. When she snaps that she can’t go back to the same hell as five years earlier, he replies, “Go back? I’m still in it.” They tensely wait for Rachid to call again, yet Allouache withholds explanation of how these three fit together until late in the film. Before the wrenching finale (bring hankies), all that’s clear is that Djamila and Lakhdar had a daughter who died five years earlier.
Many of Allouache’s films express disheartened concern over the rise of fundamentalism (“Bab el Oued City,” “The Other World”), but in “The Repentant,” possibly for the first time, he’s fully engaged with a jihadist’s psyche. Rachid’s escape from his Islamist life is real, and his desire for re-entry into society feels genuine. He has a childlike appreciation of the world around him, yet there’s something else that prevents him from fully assimilating; his denial of past atrocities isn’t convincing, and a skirmish with a revenge-seeker reveals an animal-like violence that’s never far from the surface. On one level, Rachid really may be sorry for what he did, but his personality shift following inculcation into the cult of terrorism can’t be completely buried.
All three leads deliver perfs of stunning emotional depth and complexity, quietly embodying the conflicts raging within. Only Djamila explodes, and when she does, Bendimerad’s expression of rage and grief is devastating. Young d.p. Mohamed Tayeb Laggoune displays a firm control of his handheld camera, appropriately responding to emotions onscreen. Visuals reflect the story’s intimacy while capturing the region’s empty landscape, whose vastness can feel crushing.
The film has unfortunately—thought not unexpectedly—not been a box office hit in France. It opened in Paris 2½ weeks ago and is fading fast. The French highbrow movie-going public—the kind that goes to see non-French and non-Hollywood films—is not interested in Algeria (pre- or post-1962), no matter how well-reviewed the film may be. But Algerian-origin audiences in France aren’t interested either. With the exception of Rachid Bouchareb’s ‘Indigènes‘—which was as much about France as it was Algeria—every last movie with an Algerian theme has either been a box office failure in France or simply not found its public, including in the immigrant population. E.g. one not too bad Algerian film I saw back in 2006, ‘Barakat!’, I was the only person in the theater (and which was in the Latin Quarter no less). Algerians are just not a cinema-going people, and certainly not serious cinema (I know I’ll get into trouble with some for saying this but I don’t care, because it’s true). There are hardly any cinemas in Algeria and most that exist are for young males only—adults and women do not set foot in them—and show trash. And that culture carries over into the immigrant community in France. And when Algerians do go to the movies, they show little to no interest in movies by Algerian directors. C’est dommage.
But if French and Algerians are not going to see ‘Le Repenti’, Americans and others should. So if you have a chance to see it, do so. You won’t regret it. Et si vous êtes à Paris, voici les séances actuellement.
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