'The Blessed' ('Les Bienheureux'): Film Review

Courtesy of Bac Films
A haunting portrait of Algerians coping with the aftereffects of war.

Writer-director Sofia Djama’s debut drama follows a handful of characters living in Algiers in the wake of a civil war that lasted throughout the 1990s.

The Algerian Civil War lasted for more than a decade, ending in 2002 with the disappearance of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), who, along with other insurgent forces, battled a military-backed government that fought to keep the Islamists out of power. It was a long, brutal conflict that saw anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000 victims, including several civilian massacres perpetuated by the insurgents and, some believe, the army itself. The result was a nation torn in half, with many Algerians fleeing overseas while others were left behind to pick up the pieces once the war ended.

Such is the backdrop for writer-director Sofia Djama’s debut feature, The Blessed (Les Bienheureux), which follows a handful of characters over a 24-hour period in the capital of Algiers. Set back in 2008, when the country’s wounds were still healing, the film offers a grim if illuminating portrait of a place and people caught in perpetual limbo between the trauma of the past, the oppression of the present and the dashed hopes of the future. There seems to be little solace for those Algerians who decided to stay put instead of expatriating to France or elsewhere, and the family at the center of Djama’s movie is ultimately left wondering if it was worth holding on for so long.

As bleak as that sounds, The Blessed is also a warm, intimately hewn drama marked by graceful turns from leads Sami Bouajila (Omar Killed Me) and Nadia Kaci — the latter also starred in the Cannes entry Until the Birds Return, which tackled similar themes — and a promising cast of young actors who portray a budding generation caught between the thirst for freedom and the suspicion of anything Western (i.e. colonial). After premiering in Venice, where it scooped up a few awards, the film was recently released to critical acclaim in France and could find more exposure abroad.

Set over one very long day and night, the story is centered on a couple — gynecologist Samir (Bouajila) and college professor Amal (Kaci) — hoping to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary with a night out on the town. While they visit friends and look for a place to grab dinner, their teenage son, Fahim (Amine Lansari), spends time with best buds Reda (Adam Bessa) and Feriel (Lyna Khoudri), doing the things that kids anywhere do: being bored, listening to music, smoking pot and trying to have some fun in a city that looks like it's still under wartime curfew.

Initially it’s tough to see where Djama is going with her rather loose and plotless narrative, but as the night drags on it becomes increasingly clear how Samir and his family are caught in the suffocating grip of postwar Algerian society. Harassed by corrupt cops and moralizing imams, or bickering with friends living in exile, the clan is repeatedly confronted by their decision to stay in a country that no longer tolerates freethinking intellectuals — or teenagers who just want to have a little fun.

When the couple tries at one point to find a restaurant for drinks and dinner, they wind up having to resort to the only place that will serve them alcohol: a bland international hotel protected by metal detectors, and where their date soon degenerates into an extended argument about Samir’s refusal to move abroad. Meanwhile, Fahim and his buddies debate Reda’s growing Islamism — the latter decides to get a verse of the Koran tattooed on his back by a local squatter — and ultimately have their own run-in with the police. While this is going on, we learn that the sassy, iconoclastic Feriel, who's somewhat of a love interest for Fahim, may carry the deepest war scars of them all.

The Blessed gradually builds to a dark if somewhat truncated finale that leaves Samir and his clan pretty much back where they were at the start. It’s perhaps Djama’s way of showing how impossible it is to evolve in a society that appears to be stuck in arrested development, if not moving in reverse. Filming the proceedings in wide shots that reveal the characters against the architecture of Algiers — a mixture of Haussmannian buildings and drab concrete modernism — the director anchors her drama in a place that seems to have one foot stuck in the past and one in the grave, with those who remain left to wander the city like ghosts.

Production companies: Liason Cinematographique, Artemis Productions, Shelter Prod
Cast: Sami Bouajila, Nadia Kaci, Faouzi Bensaidi, Amine Lansari, Lyna Khoudri, Adam Bessa
Director-screenwriter: Sofia Djama
Producers: Serge Zeitoun, Patrick Quinet
Director of photography: Pierre Aim
Production designer: Patricia Ruelle
Costume designer: Claire Dubien
Editor: Sophie Brunet
Casting: Juliette Denis Arda, Karina Bouchama
Sales: Bac Films

In French, Arabic
102 minutes

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