'Madame Courage': Venice Review

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A modest, verite-style film that takes a while to start tackling its vast and complex subject.

Algerian director Merzak Allouache's new film looks at a young thief and his relationship with the women in his life.

A young Algerian thief develops an obsession with a teenage girl whose golden necklace he’s snatched away in Madame Courage, the latest film from veteran Algerian director Merzak Allouache (The Repentant, The Rooftops). Extremely stripped-down in its approach and often feeling more like a documentary, this initially plays like a shaky-cam doodle in which nothing much of consequence seems to happen. But as the drama, also written by Allouache, progresses, it slowly transforms itself from a story about a boy and his designs on a girl to a more allegorical tale about Algerian men’s often warped relationships with women. Allouache’s name recognition among world cinema cognoscenti should ensure this will do the festival rounds after its Venice Horizons launch, with minor theatrical play a possibility in countries such as France.

With his thin and elongated face, toothy and mischievous grin and wiry frame, it’s not hard to imagine that just a few years ago, Omar (newcomer Adlane Djemil) lived the life of a street urchin, at least by day. He still aimlessly roams the streets now, in his late teens or early twenties, stealing from passersby to make a living. At night he returns to what passes for home, a makeshift collection of planks and plastic filled with a few pieces of third-hand furniture in a shantytown on the outskirts of Mostaganem, a seaside city some fifty miles from Oran. He’s the only man in the small household that also includes Omar’s mother (Zohra Faidhi), who has nothing but complaints about her son, and his older sister, Sabrina (Leila Tilmatine).

For Omar, initially Selma (Lamia Bezouaoui) is just another victim, a girl walking home after school with her girlfriends who’s wearing a necklace with a golden Hamsa pendant that catches Omar’s eye. Selma, who got the piece of jewelry from her mother before she died, is heartbroken when she’s robbed of it in broad daylight. But to her surprise, when she goes into a café with her friends to try and catch her breath after the attack, she sees Omar standing outside, looking at her. He runs off before they reach the door but it’s clear that she intrigues him.

Omar is the silent type and none of the protagonists like to explain their actions or thinking, with the exception of the siblings’ mother who always has something to vocally complain about. For audiences wondering what to think during the countless handheld shots of the back of Omar’s head as he roams the city, it helps to know that the title refers to the drugs he consumes every day which seem to give him limitless courage.

But the titular Madame is of course also a reference to the women Omar encounters. His treatment of Selma is borderline stalkerish, hanging out underneath the window of the apartment building where she lives with her family once he’s figured out where she lives. She seems intrigued and not necessarily alarmed by his behavior, also because quite early on the film, Omar has already handed her back her necklace in a wordless sequence that crackles with intensity and infinite possibilities. ("He’s a harmless crazy person," she tells an increasingly worked up male member of her family.)

That said, it takes a while for Allouache to move all the necessary elements into place and some patience is required before it becomes clear that Omar and his women are allowing the director to explore Algerian men’s tortured relationship with the opposite sex. Selma here represents the idealized, unattainable and virginal woman; Sabrina, the female family member who needs to be protected (she’s exploited and maltreated by her pimp) and their mother the woman who gave them life and hasn’t stopped complaining since, though who clearly wants what’s best for her offspring. The interactions with these women are supplemented by the running commentaries of conservative, morality-themed TV programs that always seem to be on. If there are "just" three types of women in this film — Madonnas, whores and family members — that's perhaps because the men consider women in ways that are much too black-and-white.

Even if it’s clear that Omar is not necessarily a bad kid, forced by circumstances and his survival instinct to steal to survive, his behavior isn’t exactly saintly. And none of the women, not even Selma, seems to have any agency, with the men around them deciding for them on all fronts. Even Omar’s single mom is bossed around by the men of the neighborhood. It all makes for rather sobering and even depressing viewing, augmented by Allouache’s verite style, which intentionally robs the film of any sense of fiction. It's not necessarily anything new but this modest feature nonetheless packs quite a punch as the story draws to a close.

Production companies: Baya Films, Neon Production

Cast: Adlane Djemil, Lamia Bezouaoui, Leila Tilmatine, Abdellatif Benahmed, Zohra Faidhi, Mohamed Takerret

Writer-Director: Merzak Allouache

Producers: Antonin Dedet, Merzak Allouache

Director of photography: Olivier Guerbois

Editors: Tuong Vi Nguyen Long, Yann Dedet  


No rating, 90 minutes