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PARIS — A French-born son of Algerian immigrants is sent to the family’s ancestral village — even though he’s never been to Algeria or even speaks proper Arabic — in Homeland (Né quelque part), the feature debut of Mohamed Hamidi. Though it tackles very serious and sometimes almost contradictory topics, such as the desire of desperate young Algerians to leave their stagnant country and, conversely, the difficulties of a French-born Algerian to truly appreciate the beauties of his motherland, Hamidi manages to keep things surprisingly light and coherent for the most part. He’s greatly aided by terrific newcomer Tewfik Jallab as the straight-shooting lead and popular French-Moroccan comedian Jamel Debbouze, also a producer, as his village-idiot cousin.
Homeland was a last-minute addition to this year’s Cannes lineup, where it was presented as a special screening for kids. It went out locally June 19, with the semi-wide release scoring the second-highest per-screen average after Man of Steel. Festivals not afraid of serio-comic fare should take note and some theatrical interest beyond the usual Francophone outlets isn’t impossible, especially with Intouchables directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache attached as associate producers.
Farid (Jallab) is a 26-year-old French law student and is the apple of his immigrant family’s eye. Though he’s never been to Algeria and isn’t fluent in Arabic, he’s not someone who’s consciously rebelled against his roots but just a guy who’s never been curious about his origins (as explained in a somewhat clumsily written voice-over). However, the handsome future lawyer is well aware of his parents’ conservative values, as he seems incapable of telling them he’s got a French girlfriend (Julie De Bona) with whom he’s about to sign for an apartment.
But the couple’s own home has to wait when Farid’s old man suddenly falls ill after receiving a letter about the house he built for his family back in the Maghreb. As the eldest son, it falls to Farid to travel in his father’s stead and talk to the Algerian authorities, who want to buy the family’s property and use it for public works. At the airport, he’s picked up by his uncle, Brahim (Miloud Khetib), and Brahim’s loose-canon son, also called Farid (Debbouze), who have offered to help their Frenchified relative navigate the local customs and bureaucracy.
The screenplay, written by the director and Alain-Michel Blanc, constantly oscillates between straightforward drama and comedy. Farid and his France-based family are realistically depicted, while the protagonist’s first contact with Algeria is clearly played for laughs and Debbouze brings his usual hyper-caffeinated shtick to the proceedings. The coterie of locals who convene at the village cafe are mainly caricatures and offer an excuse for Hamidi to reconnect with some comedians he’s nurtured as a writer-director of stand-up comedy (he’s previously worked with not only Jamel but also colorful villagers Malik Bentalha and Abdelkader Secteur).
In the film’s most contrived development, the Algerian Farid steals his namesake’s passport so he can make his wish of leaving for France come true. However, this absurd turn of events offers the basis for a neat conceit: France-born Farid becomes a reverse “sans papiers” in Algeria, a loaded term that normally describes undocumented immigrants in France but can here be applied to a French citizen who can’t leave Algeria because he’s got no papers and can’t immediately prove he has the right to leave.
Stuck in his motherland, Farid tries to take care of business and make the most of it, allowing him to discover both the beauty and problems of the country. He even meets a pretty girl (Zined Obeid), the granddaughter of a local sage (the late, great Moroccan thespian Mohamed Majd), and the way this particular subplot play out shows Hamidi’s a sophisticated director who likes to play with (but not frustrate) audience expectations. Similarly, the developments in the finals reels are harrowing in content but not in execution, as the director manages to keep the tone relatively light even after Debbouze has literally exited the picture.
The terrifically appealing lead performance of Jallab, whose matinee-idol looks come paired with serious acting chops, further help paper over the tonal inconsistencies. Equally important is Armand Amar‘s score, which wisely plays up the drama and melancholy instead of the comedy.
Production companies: Quad Productions, Kiss Films, France 3 Cinema, Mars Films, Jouror Productions, Agora Films Production, Frakas Productions
Cast: Tewfik Jallab, Jamel Debbouze, Fatsah Bouyahmed, Abdelkader Secteur, Malik Bentalha, Fehd Benchemsi, Mourad Zaoui, Miloud Khetib, Mohamed Majd, Julie De Bona, Zined Obeid
Director: Mohamed Hamidi
Screenwriters: Mohamed Hamidi, Alain-Michel Blanc
Producers: Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun, Jamel Debbouze
Associate producers: Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakache, Dominique Boutonnat, Arnaud Bertrand,
Hubert Caillard, Jean-Yves Roubin, David Grumbach
Director of photography: Alex Lamarque
Production designer: Arnaud Roth
Music: Armand Amar
Costume designer: Hadjira Ben Rahou
Editor: Marion Monnier
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 85 minutes
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