The Rooftops (Es-Stouh, Les Terraces): Venice Review
Veteran director Merzak Allouache casts an unquiet eye on his society from the rooftops of Algiers.
While the rest of the Arab world writhes and burns, Algeria appears, at least from the outside, to be a relatively quiet haven after a decade of terrorism. This notion is dispelled, however, in The Rooftops, a series of cleverly interwoven dramas that go deep inside the social fabric to reveal how frazzled and violent it has become. Writer-director Merzak Allouache, one of the country’s most authoritative filmmakers, is convincing as he sketches the results of contemporary history from the French occupation to the present day.
The film’s fine group acting and technical work should give it additional pull with festivals after its competition turn in Venice, following which viewers with an interest in the area and its cinema would do well to seek it out.
On the day of the El Fajr holiday, time is measured by five prayers plaintively sung out by the muezzin over loudspeakers, each at a particularly time of day. Adding strong unity of place is the fact that all the stories are set on the rooftops of buildings in historic neighborhoods like Notre Dame d’Afrique, Bab El Oued and the Casbah, where the poor and homeless have taken refuge.
In a building under construction, a man is being subjected to water torture by two thugs working for a sinister figure who wants him to sign an unidentified piece of paper. He stubbornly refuses. Later, with very bad timing, a small film crew makes its way to the rooftop to shoot a panorama of Algiers. The female director instructs the cameraman to avoid showing the Christian and Jewish cemeteries, an example of how the screenplay brushes on loaded topics without feeling the need to insist.
The contradictory position of women in Algerian society is unveiled on another roof, where a firebrand girl singer, Aissa (Adila Bendimerad), rehearses for a concert with her band, under the admiring gaze of a much less liberated girl on the next rooftop.
The view of Algiers, a white city perched on a terraced hillside that wraps around the sea, may be breath-taking, but most of the city’s open rooftops are inhabited by squatters who have no place else to go. The poorest of the poor, they hang onto their one-room shacks for dear life. On one roof, a half-mad man called Uncle Larbi lives chained inside a cage, where the family feeds him and a little girl talks to him. Once a week they cover up the cage so a group of 20 bearded youths can meet to hear about Jihad and do a little business on the side.
Another homeless man is so dug in to his roof that he rents space to people, like a boxer and an old sheikh posing as an exorcist to the gullible. On yet another roof, an unfortunate family tries to dodge being thrown out by the landlord. All these characters have haunting faces, like melancholy animals gnawed at by some unspeakable sorrow. “May Allah protect us from the devil,” the first line in the film, could be the watchword for all of them, witnesses and perpetrators of numerous murders which will be casually committed off-screen during the day, with little if any consequences.
Wind and the constant sound of waves pounding the shoreline give the film its background soundtrack. The only music is that played by Aissa’s band and a group of splendid wedding players who sing the far from cheerful song, “My wounds will never heal” about separation, passion and exile. Yet right after that, they sing a song about getting up and make the most of life.
Frederic Derrien’s cinematography is top quality, lending a sense of beauty to the squalor of the inner city.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competition), Sept. 6, 2013
Production companies: Baya Films, JBA Productions
Cast: Adila Bendimerad, Nassima Bemhoub, Ahcene Benzerari, Aissa Chouat, Mourad Khen, Myriam Ait El Hadj, Akhram Djeghim, Amal Kateb
Director: Merzak Allouache
Screenwriter: Merzak Allouache
Producers: Merzak Allouache, Marianne Dumoulin, Jacques Bidou
Director of photography: Frederic Derrien
Editor: Sylvie Gadmer
Sales: Elle Driver
No rating, 91 minutes.