'South Terminal' ('Terminal Sud'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

A tale of state repression that's both penetrating and obscure.

Franco-Algerian director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche ('Bled Number One,' 'Smugglers' Songs') screened his latest feature in Locarno and Toronto.

One of France's most intriguing and underrated filmmakers, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche has crafted a distinctive body of work over a handful of features (among them Back Home, Dernier maquis and Smugglers' Songs) that often deal with the Franco-Algerian director's own North African diaspora. At once raw and the lyrical, as if they were documentaries melded into impressionistic pieces of fiction, his movies can feel like they were improvised or shot on the fly, and yet reveal a powerful sense of craft and narrative.

In his latest film, South Terminal (Terminal Sud), Ameur-Zaïmeche gives us a dark and abstract political thriller that, at first blush, seems like a depiction of the long civil war that racked his native Algeria throughout the 1990s. There are kidnappings, assassinations and instances of torture carried out by either the army or state-sponsored thugs, with journalists and civilians gunned down in broad daylight. Caught in the midst of it all is a scraggly local doctor (comedian turned actor Ramzy Bedia) who tries to save lives but can hardly save himself from the dangers lurking outside his door.

And yet the more the minimal plot progresses, the more it becomes clear that the film does not have a particular setting or time period, but rather exists in some sort of eternal present that perhaps represents what France, or Algeria, or both, once were or can still become. Ameur-Zaïmeche remains vague, perhaps frustratingly so, about his movie's identity — per the closing credits it was mostly shot in the South of France — but what he says about fear and isolation in a totalitarian society has a universal tinge.

An alcoholic committed to his professional calling, the unnamed doctor decides to stay on the job despite multiple death threats and the fact that his girlfriend (Amel Brahaim-Djelloul) wants to leave the country — especially when her reporter brother (Nabil Dejdouani) is shot in the back after publishing articles about the ongoing killings. The only person the doctor can confide in is Moh (Slimane Dazi), a friend and smuggler scraping by in a place where everyone lives under constant terror.

Captured in roaming, naturalistic shots by Irina Lubtchansky (My Golden Days) and Camille Clément, the film digresses in places to depict the eerie beauty that surrounds the doctor as he plunges further toward his doom. Garbage men sweep up a dirty marketplace; a truck rumbles down a road, creating a storm of dust in its wake; light glitters across an endless sea or burns through a car windshield in the desert. 

The movie that most comes to mind here is Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger, which also dealt with a character snared by political intrigue in a hostile land. Both films use evocative imagery to illustrate a danger that's often obscure and hard to define, although in South Terminal things become disturbingly visceral in the third act when the doctor is arrested, subjected to torture and left for dead on the side of the road.

Bedia, who became famous in France as one half of the comic duo Éric et Ramzy, gets put through the wringer here, his body pummeled and his spirit broken by the powers-that-be. We never learn who such powers are, but the one face we can put to them is telling: that of a French man (Régis Laroche) who looks like a member of the OAS, the paramilitary unit that committed atrocities during the Algerian War of the 1950s and 60s. Interrogating the doctor until what may be his last breath, the torturer ultimately reminds us how much the world of South Terminal, as fictive as it may seem, has been drawn from the dark well of history.

Production companies: Sarrazink Productions, Arte France Cinéma
Cast: Ramzy Bedia, Amel Brahaim-Djelloul, Slimane Dazi, Salim Ameur-Zaimeche, Nabil Dejdouani
Director, screenwriter, producer: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche
Screenwriters: Sandra Kogut, Iana Cossoy
Directors of photography: Irina Lubtchansky, Camille Clement
Production designer: Tony Delattre
Costume designer: Julia Fouroux
Editor: Grégoire Pontecaille

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema); Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: REASON8 Films

In French, Arabic
96 minutes