Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 20, 2011 9:38 am 
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Mysteries on top of ordinariness

In Rachid Bouchareb's quiet little film, cross-cultural communication takes place when two strangers seek their adult children after the July 7, 2005 London terrorist attacks. French Arab director Bouchareb deserves much credit in this melodramatic situation for sticking with the mundane, wearying everyday details of a search for lost people, avoiding mawkishness. (Paradoxically there is a contrived element, though, as well as a feel documentary realism.) The filmmakers stick close to the predominantly Muslim North London neighborhood where the two children turn out to have been connected. London River achieves a fleeting poetry of ordinariness, its exoticism all in the contrast between the very white middle class English Brenda Blethyn, known for working in Mike Leigh's realistic mode (Secrets and Lies) -- and a bit of a fidgety drama queen -- and the stoical Sotigui Kouyaté, a tall, spidery African who worked in Peter Brook's ritual dramas (he has since died).

Elizabeth (Blethyn) is a Falklands island widow who works a small farm on the island of Guernsey. TV reports of the terror attacks disturb her and she goes to London when her daughter doesn't answer her phone. Ousmane (Kouyaté) is on a separate journey. He's an African emigrant who's worked in France for 15 years (in forestry, trying futilely to save the elms) and hasn't seen his son since the latter was six. He has come to London not because of the attacks but simply to try to find the young man and persuade him to go back to Africa to be with his mother.

A certain suspension of disbelief is necessary to explain how Ousmane, who speaks French, winds up in the right part of town and meets a mosque teacher with a photo that shows not only what he believes to be his son, but, standing quite near him, Jane, Elizabeth's daughter. And that their searches before too long repeatedly bring Elizabeth and Ousmane together. It may also be a surprise that in this London-based film Samy Bouajila and Roschdy Zem, two of the best known movie actors in France, turn up (from Bouchareb's Algerian war saga Days of Glory) as Jane's landlord and the local imam. That's okay, I guess, because the film's heart is in the right place (and not on its sleeve). The gist of it is that when it comes to terrorism, both Muslims and Christians are the victims, and lost.

Elizabeth has the conventional ignorance and prejudices. She takes easily enough, in her anxiety, to the secret that Jane has been living with a black man without telling. What she can't fathom is an interest in Islam, and the pair's taking Arabic classes at the mosque together. "Who speaks Arabic?" she asks (340 million people?). Both parents begin to suspect their children may have been involved in the attacks, and Elizabeth is hostile toward Ousmane. Of course the pathway of events is to lead them to an understanding. But, with admirable restraint, not too much of one.

Elizabeth puts up copied photos of Jane and her own phone number; this is how Ousmane contacts her. They both meet with police and eventually with people at the mosque and, as photos are passed around, it comes out that Jane and Ousmane's son have been living together. Bouchareb never gets in the way of his actors except to put his camera up close to their expressive faces. There is a little too much of Kouyaté's long-limbed impassiveness and Blethyn's mood swings, but their physicality is, nonetheless, well judged and well used. The understatedness is haunting sometimes. Nothing is stranger than everyday urban places. But this doesn't seem particularly subtle or intentional. Bouchareb, whose historical sagas are conventional (except for being French films about Arabs), has no flair. One can only guess what a filmmaker with a gift for the grand questions like Michael Haneke or Claire Denis or Arnaud des Pallières might have done with such material. But this humble treatment has its value. It's also good for the sense of alienness created by terrorist attacks in the heart of London that a director who is not English made the film.

Rachid Bouchareb's London River was released in New York December 7, 2011 and screened for this review at Cinema Village.

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