'May Allah Bless France!' ('Qu'Allah Bénisse la France!'): Toronto Review

May Allah Bless France
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
An attractive but underwhelming cine-memoir

French rapper/author Abd al Malik makes his filmmaking debut

Viewers expecting an 8 Mile-like experience from May Allah Bless France! should recalibrate. Yes, this is the autobiographical directing debut of Parisian rapper Abd al Malik (an adaptation of his book by the same name), and yes, Malik grew up amid petty crime and poverty. But for a musician, the filmmaker is curiously unenthusiastic about capturing his art onscreen, and tales of his early misdeeds lack the punch we expect given Pierre Aim's gritty monochrome photography. Despite taking home the Discovery program's FIPRESCI prize, it is unlikely to get much traction with English speakers beyond festivals, though Muslim viewers may seek it out on video.

Growing up in a housing project in Strasbourg, young Regis (played very well by Marc Zinga) lives a familiar double life. Though sensitive at school (where he's good at philosophy) and with his girlfriend Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani), he's also a hood: He and his buddies pick tourists' pockets and snatch purses. If his peers have their way, they'll soon move from this to selling drugs. ("Only gypsies, Romanians and junkies" still pick pockets, they complain.)

They need the money for recording equipment, as the local shared resources available to them aren't cutting it. We see the aspiring crew practice a bit, but beyond the intelligence in Zinga's eyes have no reason to suspect they have talent.

The death of one of his friends helps prompt Regis's conversion to Islam; as Abd al Malik, he will take recording money from a drug dealer but won't participate himself. The film is better at putting us in the mind of a convert trying to live righteously than it is at making exciting cinema out of occasional violence. We see points of friction, like his realization that racism exists in this new world just as it does among unbelievers. At the same time, Malik is slowly getting media attention.

This trajectory of career and personal growth could use more development on the music front. Only one sequence, featuring his song "Tin Soldier," really features his music, and after that the film feels it has established his fame and can comfortably move back to his lingering questions about commitment in love and faith.

Production companies: Les Films du Kiosque, Gibraltar Films, France 2 Cinema, Ad Vitam
Cast: Marc Zinga, Sabrina Ouazani, Larouci Didi, Mickael Nagenraft, Matteo Falkone, Stephane Fayette-Mikano
Director-Screenwriter: Abd Al Malik
Producers: Francois Kraus, Denis Pineau-Valencienne, Fabien Coste
Director of photography: Pierre Aim
Production designer: Mathieu Menut
Editor: Kako Kelber
Music: Abd Al Malik, Bilal, Laurent Garneir, Wallen
Sales: Films distribution

No rating, 92 minutes