'Chouf': Cannes Review

Chouf Still 1-H 2016
Courtesy of Tessalit Productions
Hot town, summer in the city

French director Karim Dridi ('The Last Flight') returns to Marseilles with another gritty crime drama starring mostly non-professional actors.

Eight years on from the crash and burn of his costly Marion Cotillard-Guillaume Canet showcase The Last Flight, French writer-director Karim Dridi returns to his low-budget roots with Chouf. A sweaty drama set among the dispossessed of Marseilles, where Dridi made Bye-Bye and Khamsa, Chouf follows a French-Arabic student (Sofian Khammes) from the ghetto originally who comes home on vacation and ends up staying to search for his brother’s killer. Although the ‘Mecz in the Hood’ plot is all-too predictable, Dridi deserves credit for imbuing the material with spontaneity, creating a brawny, widescreen feel and once again coaxing strong performances from a cast made up mostly of near unknowns and non-professionals.

The drama pans out among the white tower blocks of the city’s northern banlieues, aging social housing projects populated by a distinctly Marseillaise multicultural mix of whites, gypsies and North and sub-Saharan Africans. Later on, there are scenes set in the city’s picturesque town center and beachside, but the most spectacular sequences unfold on mountain-top eyries overlooking the city. Like a Biblical figure tempted by the devil, it’s in these wind-blown wild spots that protagonist Sofiane or “So” (Khammes) must make his hardest choices. The film’s title means “look” in Arabic, as in the verb “to look”, but it’s also slang for someone who’s a lookout or spy. Surveillance turns out to be a key theme throughout, from the opening sequence in the housing project where gang underlings keep their eyes peeled for cops from every rooftop against a soundtrack of pounding French rap, to the deserted summits above where guns can be fired unheard.

Twentysomething Sofiane has come home to visit his parents (Hatika Karaoui and Slimane Dazi), his brother Slimane aka “Slim” (Mourad Tahar Boussatha) and two sisters (Myriam Schaetsaert and Celya Zelmat). While straight-edge Sofiane has been off studying for a business degree in Lyon, the more streetwise Slimane has stayed home and risen up through the ranks of the local drug-dealing racket, run by man-mountain Reda (Foued Nabba) and his consigliere Rachid (Oussama Abdul Aal). Eventually it’s revealed that they get their supply from a soft-spoken Lebanese importer (Simon Abkarian, who had a key role in Khamsa, as did petit but powerful presence, Tony Fourmann, taking a supporting role here.)

Mom and Dad know full well how Slim earns all that cash he’s always flashing, and while they don’t approve of his criminal activities, there’s nothing they can do to stop him. Also, the money does come in handy sometimes. Besides, as Slim says to Sofiane with heavily telegraphed irony, they have a pact agreeing So will be the good son who earns a degree and Slim the one who earns the money.

In classic Western-style, Slim is shot down offscreen in an adeptly assembled sequence, with the tragedy only heard instead of seen. Will he decide whether to go back to Lyon and resume his studies, or stay behind and find a way to avenge his brother’s death? Duh, no brainer. But while that first-act setup is almost dully by-numbers, the subsequent action has some spicy unpredictability, especially as Dridi and his Khammes between them keep it a little murky as to whether Sofiane has been seduced into Reda and Rachid's world of violent crime or if he’s just biding his time, waiting for the right moment to strike.

As Fernando Meirelles did while preparing City of God, Dridi spent over a year living in Marseilles, working with the locals to get to know the milieu and finally cast the roles. Khammes, his star, was already working in theater in the city, but in terms of screen presence and sheer thespian chops there’s hardly much of a gap between him and, say, Zine Darar, who plays his friend Marteau, a low-level criminal who eases So’s path into the gang, and that's a compliment to them both.

The film’s craft contributions are all quietly effective without being distracting, although DP Patrick Ghiringhelli’s cinematography is particularly dazzling, thanks to the naturally photogenic landscapes and the blazing hot quality of the Mediterranean sun.

Production companies: A Tessalit Productions, Mirak Films production in co-production with France 3 Cinema
Cast: Sofian Khammes, Foued Nabba, Oussama Abdul Aal, Zine Darar, Nailia Harzoune, Foziwa Mohamed, Mohamed Ali Mohamed Abdallah, Tony Fourmann, Mourad Tahar Boussatha, Hatika Karaoui, Slimane Dazi, Simon Abkarian, Myriam Schaetsaert, Celya Zelmat, Jamila Farah
Director/screenwriter: Karim Dridi
Producers: Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb, Karim Dridi
Executive producer: Muriel Merlin
Director of photography: Patrick Ghiringhelli
Production designer: Yann Mercier
Costume designer: Karine Serrano
Editor: Monique Dartonne
Music: Chkrrr – Jerome Benson, Casey, Kofs
Casting: Emma Soisson, Coralie Amadeo
Sales: Doc & Film International
No rating, 108 minutes