Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 02, 2023 10:30 am 
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An intensely personal film about the tragic death of a promising brother

In the ironically titled Pour la France Ismaël (Karim Leklou of The World Is Yours)) confronts, a decade later, a terrible family event in this bitter and intense autobiographical film. It is the death of Jallal/Aissa (Shaïn Boumedine, of Mektoub, My Love), the filmmaker's handsome, promising younger brother in a hazing ritual at Saint Cyr, France's elite military academy. The film is complexly structured to begin with this event, then shift back and forth to other moments. It first shifts to a conflicted early childhood in Algeria, when the mother took the two boys to France and left their soldier father behind. Then it begins to unreel the family's present-time conflict with the authorities over the ceremony and burial. And intermittently it flashes back to more recent moments when Jallal was in Taipei, Taiwan's capital and Ismaël came to visit him.

The hazing tagedy is intensely forward, dizzying, and shocking, a great onrush of closeups of a crowd of young men being herded into a near-frozen pond brightly head-lit, then cast into sudden darkness. The childhood recollections are quiet and remote, with a nostalgic period flavor, till there is a scary confrontation of the little boy who holds out against the father's insistence that he reveal where their passports are hidden. In Taipei, everyone has to speak English, with the effect that feelings and ideas come out simpler and cruder.

These time-shifts all underline the centrality, and a growing sense of the injustice, of the tragic death of the brother,and show how it is overcast with wrenching early family conflict and the sharp differences between the two brothers, the younger one handsome, promising, and motivated, the older listless and unfocused. A powerful, brooding, but rather confusing mood emerges by the way events are intense, yet treated as at one remove. This is what Amber Wilkinson is referring to when she writes in her Screen Daily Venice Orizzonti review that "the tenor of the film tends toward the dour." The bitter intensity of feeling in sequences across time periods causes the film to curdle somewhat, its message lost in implosion.

The effect is of a meditation on the complex feelings among divided families compounded by the bitter feelings engendered by the injustices of colonialism. This is a powerful film, whose intensely personal familial subject matter one feels. But one wishes the structure had been clearer and more forceful. Hami had to wait until the emotion had stilled: it is important to him, and stated in the script, to avoid name calling and crude anger. If everyone is guilty, no one is guilty. But loyalties will always be divided. The supreme irony is that Jallal was the best, a brilliant and outstanding student at the elite "grande école" Sciences-Po, greeted as an exceptionally promising cadet. But why die for France, the colonial power against which the Algerians fought a long and bitter war of independence? And how much more ironic still to die not in a brave military action but in a confused and morally dubious ritual, excused by giving it a special name, "bahutage." (Some authorities were eventually tried, but given trivial sentences.)

Certain moments stand out: the horrible helplessness of the hazing, being forced at night to enter a near-frozen pond. In Algeria, the boys' harsh father trying to force the younger boy to tell him where their passports have been hidden. The boy is defenseless and fearful, yet does not yield - nor does the father resort to physical brutality; he gives up. The mother wants to move to France, the little boys don't (except the younger says the candy's better there), yet they resist the will of their father, who later is estranged, and reappears only years later, limping, but otherwise unchanged, when he's gotten wind of the death of Jallal and wants to be involved.

The powerful performance of the acdtress Lubna Azabal (of Incendies) as Nadia, the mother, flows through various sequences. Memorable indeed is her wailing and yelling in traditional Arab style when the corpse of Jallal - resplendent and erect in military dress uniform - is laid out for the family to view it, while stiff French military authorities stand by. The contrast between their French colonial uniformed look and Nadia's impulsive, unbridled shreiks says it all.

And of course there is language, which more than anything underlines the built-in ambivalence of being born maghrebi, a citizen of the western corner of North Africa with an overlay of colonial legacies. The family members constantly shift between French and Arabic when they speak. And when the brothers are uprooted from the Francophone environment in the Far East and must communicate in English, that is like shining a distorting light on them. Hami may have produced a somewhat indigestible film, but its fairness and authenticity can't be questioned.

For My Coiuntry/Pour la France, 113, cowritten with Olivier Pourriol, shot by Jerome Almeras, edited by Joelle Hache, debuted Sept. 2022 in the Orizzonti section at VEnice; the flimmaker's previous feature La Melodie also debuted at Venice out of competition in 2017. Released in France Feb. 8, 2023, it received an AlloCiné press rating of 3.9 (78%). Screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, March 2–12, 2023 (NYC). R-V showtimes:
Thursday, March 9 at 6:30pm (Q&A with Rachid Hami)
Friday, March 10 at 3:45pm

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