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Anyone wondering what happened to Algeria’s anti-colonialist revolution so stirringly depicted in Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic The Battle of Algiers can turn to The Man From Oran (El Wahrani/L’Oranais) for the sad answers. The betrayal of revolutionary ideals by the country’s political leaders after Algeria gained independence from France in 1962 and their deliberate falsification of history are shown with dismaying clarity. Though the disclaimer reads “no reference to real people intended,” the gist is there. It was one of the most watchable new Arab features bowing at the Abu Dhabi festival, where Lyes Salem won Best Director From the Arab World in the New Horizons section.
Directing himself in the leading role, Salem creates a strongly individualized hero who bonds with the audience, making his moral decline all the more painful to watch. The film is quite a change of pace from his feature bow, the much-praised village satire Masquerades (2008), in which he also starred. Here, the traces of comedy are few and far between in the tale of two friends who live through tumultuous historical events but aren’t strong enough to hold on to their ideals.
We meet Hamid (Khaled Benaissa) coolly driving past a road block set up by young French soldiers, with his uncomprehending pal Djaffar (Salem) watching bug-eyed at his side. Though he has no interest in the liberation movement, Djaffar is thrust into the thick of things when he has to escape with Hamid and accidentally kills a French farmer. By the time they rendezvous with Hamid’s contact in a local dive, Djaffar’s beloved wife has already been raped by the farmer’s son as a vendetta; she will give birth to a blond son and die in despair. All this is kept a secret from the emotionally volatile Djaffar until after the war, when he returns home a hero, and learns the truth. Inexplicably, he has not been in touch with his wife for five years — a large plot hole that seriously undermines his display of angst.
Happily, he accepts little Bachir as his own flesh and blood; unhappily, he demands everyone else pretend that the rape never occurred. In a startling illustration of rewriting history to suit the victors, Hamid — now a minister in the new government — has a play written showing how Djaffar’s wife died protecting their baby from the wrath of French soldiers. This version of the hero’s story retold as popular folk myth becomes the official version of the facts, and poor Bachir grows up wondering why no one else in the family has blue eyes.
The clique of friends around Hamid, including Djaffar, all get prominent government posts. In a delightful aside that showcases his comic gifts, Salem plays the humble carpenter elevated to the ministry of forestry, where he sits behind a huge desk with three telephones. But just a few more years down the line, he becomes accustomed to luxury and sells out to an international wheeler dealer: “A man who doesn’t get rich under this president never will.” From there it’s a short step to eliminating inquisitive journalists and friends who refuse to see the benefits of the single-party system.
Though lasting more than two hours, the film is well edited and remains fairly engrossing. The tension and excitement of the opening scenes flag as normalcy is restored, but Salem commands attention with his screen presence, short fuse and multifaceted character. Next to him the rest of the cast looks weak and stereotyped, like Benaissa’s smooth-talking politician Hamid.
Production companies: Dharamsala, Agence Algerienne pour le Rayonnement Culturel, Laith Media
Cast: Lyes Salem, Boukefa Abdullah, Khaled Benaissa, Djemel Barek, Amal Kateb
Director-screenwriter: Lyes Salem
Producer: Isabelle Madelaine
Director of photography: Pierre Cottereau
Production designer: Nicolas de Boiscuille
Costume designer: Carole Chollet
Editor: Florence Ricard
Music: Mathias Duplessy
Sales Agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 128 minutes
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