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Algeria’s troubles both past and present come home to roost in Until the Birds Return (En attendant les hirondelles), an intriguing first feature from writer-director Karim Moussaoui that explores the damaged emotional landscape of his homeland.
Separated into three stories that are less connected than they are complementary, the film features various characters from different backgrounds searching for a form of attachment in a country left divided by years of sectarian conflict — most notably the civil war that engulfed Algeria throughout the 1990s. While some parts are stronger than others, through its twists and turns Bird gradually builds into a tender portrait of a place, and a people, looking for ways to come together. A premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar should help push it into foreign festivals and markets.
Written by Moussaoui and Maud Ameline, the film kicks off with a rather anodyne depiction of a wealthy builder, Mourad (Mohamed Djourhri), who’s caught between the demands of his ex-wife (Sonie Mekkiou) and feckless son, as well as a second wife (Aure Atika) longing to return to France. The drama there doesn’t exactly take off at first, although an incident where Mourad witnesses a random beating in the street, and then fails to contact the police, winds up haunting the man.
Things grow more intriguing when the film unexpectedly shifts focus to another character: one of Mourad’s employees, Djalil (Mehdi Ramdani), who takes off work for a few days in order to accompany a neighboring family to the wedding of their daughter, Aicha (Hania Amar). As their long journey hits a few snags, we learn that Djalil and Aicha have a past that they aren’t necessarily ready to put behind them.
Some of the best scenes lie in this middle section, which at times recalls Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, with two young people who, despite their mutual attraction, keep repelling each other like magnets as they wander along the winding roads of the desert. In one standout moment, Djalil and Aicha escape into an empty bar, where the latter performs a marvelous dance for an audience of one. And later on, their pivotal meet-up gets hijacked by a marching band, as if the famous entr’acte from Leos Carax’s Holy Motors found its way into the Algerian backlands.
Moussaoui displays real inventiveness during such moments, and while the last chapter — about a doctor (Hassan Kachach) accused of raping a woman (Nadia Kaci) during an incident involving terrorists — can feel a bit stagy and heavy-handed compared to the love story, it manages to sum up the film’s major theme: the need for collective healing in a place left shattered by so much colonial and religious turmoil.
As solemn as that sounds, Until the Birds Return is not an altogether dark affair and has its own share of hopefulness, especially during the final chapter. Moussaoui captures the drama with a simple style that can seem a bit lackluster at times, although he makes good use of the Algerian locations and coaxes compelling performances from his cast. In the end, his narrative’s three-pronged structure is perhaps the film’s strongest asset: By hopping from one tale to the next, including a fourth tale that’s just beginning, he emphasizes how many stories his country has yet to tell.
Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Prolegomenes, Niko Film, Arte France Cinema, MK2 Films, CADC
Cast: Mohamed Djourhi, Sonia Mekkiou, Mehdi Ramdani, Hania Amar, Hassan Kachach, Nadia Kaci, Aure Atika
Director: Karim Moussaoui
Screenwriters: Karim Moussaoui, Maud Ameline
Producers: David Thion, Philippe Martin
Director of photography: David Chambille
Production designer: Hamid Boughrara
Costume designer: Maya Ben Chikh El Fegoun
Editor: Thomas Marchand
Casting director: Abdelmadjid Kellou
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: MK2 Films
In Arabic, French
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