'Divine Wind' ('Rih Rabani'): Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
A daring but unsatisfying attempt to explore the terrorist mind.

Algerian director Merzak Allouache’s desert drama becomes a seesaw of love and death when two young jihadists meet to bomb an oil refinery.

Two terrorists, strangers to each other, come together to attack an oil refinery in Merzak Allouache’s perhaps too subtle exploration of extremist psychology, Divine Wind (Rih Rabani). Though it sounds like an action film, this small, low-budget art film is anything but. Shot in stark black and white that mirrors the simplified, do-or-die world outlook of the protags, it faces off two very different types of extremists: a sophisticated young man from the middle class and a hardened woman who could easily be described as a fanatic. Unfortunately, it has little to add to what is known, or imagined, about terrorists, at least for audiences outside the region. It bowed in Toronto’s Masters section and made its Middle East premiere in El Gouna, after which it should find mostly festival audiences interested in an Algerian take on the subject.

In fact, Allouache has repeatedly returned to the theme of Islamic terrorism, which he has roundly condemned while attempting to put into context. One of his most successful films, the 1994 Bab El-Oued City, offered early insight into the rise of violent fundamentalism and its hidden political agenda. In 2012, The Repentant portrayed a young terrorist who takes advantage of a national amnesty to return to civil society. In comparison, Divine Wind is a less convincing attempt to bore deeper into the personal reasons of the jihadists, whose multi-faceted psychology seems to escape the filmmaker like sand running through fingers.  

Soft-hearted Amine (Mohamed Oughlis), clean-shaven, well-dressed and with a fashionable haircut and jeep, is a green Isis recruit nervously awaiting his first mission. He doesn't look much like terrorist material as he is introduced, sobbing, on a sand dune. Does he already repent the decision he has made to leave his family and fight with the extremists? Or is he tormented by some personal sorrow? What he’s crying about is never made clear--so much for exploring motivations. But his father must sense that something is amiss because he calls him every fifteen minutes, and the boy lies to him that he’s in Spain looking for a job.

Instead he's holed up in a remote outpost in the desert with just an old woman servant, El Hadja (Messaouda Boukhira), to cook for him and serve him tea while he reads the Quran. Boukhira gives her weather-beaten character a glowering but warm presence and, in a nice twist, she plays a larger, smarter part in the unfolding drama than one might suspect.

Then one day the wind blows in the black-robed Nour (Sarah Layssac) like Dr. Death. She arrives on a sweltering bus wearing a hijab down to her eyebrows, black gloves that cover her hands, and the grimly determined look of a woman on a mission. It transpires that she’s an Isis recruiter who has already sent 17 young Swiss girls to her terrorist cell.

Nour is the easier of the two to understand. In contrast to the romantic Amine, who wants to fight but not to die, Nour has her heart set on martyrdom after the death of her sister and a fighter she seems to have been in love with. Blinded by grief, hatred, and ideology, she sometimes barks harsh orders to El Hadja and Amine (he brushes her off drily, “I’m not your dog”) and other times seems to be losing her sanity, dancing in the dunes with an imaginary partner and a loony smile on her face. Layssac plays the aggressive, mysterious woman to the hilt, rolling big eyes around her expressive face, which is about all you can see of her. It comes as a shock to see her out of her burqa, sensually washing the heat and sand off in the bathing house in a scene that hints of a hidden womanly side.  

The two are forced to live in close quarters while they await arms and a green light to swing into action, and during the long wait, some complex feelings begin arising. As in Allouache’s film Madame Courage about a young thief and his strained relationship with women, there is more than a hint of repressed libido expressing itself in anti-social ways.

Amine’s motives continue to be vague and he seems ready to give the whole thing up. That’s when Nour slips into his bedroom and offers herself to him, manipulating his feelings for her to keep him on board but also, one supposes, for a little human warmth and affection. It’s a subtle film and leaves you guessing how unsatisfied sexual desire plays into the general psychological picture, particularly in the film's climax.

Mohamed Tayeb Laggoune’s gorgeous black and white cinematography flashes the deep, rich black of Nour’s burqa against snow white sand, recalling the heyday of Soviet photography, as does the extensive use of close-ups and long takes. To be noted is the excerpt from Allouache’s comic hit Omar Gatlato, which El Hadja is enjoying on TV until Nour crankily unplugs the set.

Production companies: Baya Films, Les Asphofilms
Cast: Sarah Layssac, Mohamed Oughlis, Messaouda Boukhira, Hacene Benzerari, Abdellatif Benahmed, Brahiem Derris 
Director, screenwriter, editor: Merzak Allouache
Producers: Merzak Allouache, Bahia Allouache
Executive producers: Merzak Allouache
Director of photography: Mohamed Tayeb Laggoune
World sales: Les Asphofilms
Venue: El Gouna Film Festival (competition)
96 min.