Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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KARIM MOUSSAOUI: UNTIL THE BIRDS RETURN/EN ATTENDANT LES HIRONDELLES (2017) - NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS

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Fitting in and standing out in the Maghreb

The Maghreb countries, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, have been so deeply influenced by outside cultures that their inhabitants suffer sometimes from split personalities. The title of Karim Moussaoui's debut feature even has a, to us, secret Arabic title. While it's French and English names refer poetically to birds, the Arabic more prosaic one is "طبيعة الحال" (tabi'at al-hal) or "The Nature of the Situation."

The film is also split into three unrelated segments, which shift back and forth between European influence and local in style and content. The first one shows a property developer whose spacious apartment, shared with his wife, would be elegant and sophisticated in Paris. Their conversations shift back and forth between French and Algerian Arabic in every sentence. When he speaks to his somewhat lazy son to urge him not to give up pursuing medicine, they speak mostly in Arabic. When he speaks later with his stylish daughter who has studied in France and vows to go back there ("It's too complicated here"), they speak only in French, with not a word of Arabic.

When the developer gets caught on a diversion road, he witnesses the violent beating of a man, about which he can do nothing. His alienation from it is shown by the fact that he never even reports it to the police after his flat tire has been fixed and he has come home. Along that deserted road are rows and rows of empty new buildings evidently never completed like many one can see in Cairo since the time of Sadat.

The second segment, with its attractive, alienated couple, might evoke Antonioni. They wind up on a long drive cross country, and are ex lovers. She is now promised to another, but they drift back together. They go to a big empty nightclub where she persuades musicians to play and reveals herself to be an excellent belly dancer. He reluctantly joins in. Later they encounter a lively group of musicians whose playing might suggest the folklore-rock blend of the famous Moroccan group, Nass El Ghiwan.

The final segment brings up old ugly memories when a well-respected doctor is accused by a woman living in a shanty town of complicity in her mass rape during the revolution. And her son, too metaphorically for words, is a mute boy who cannot bear to be touched and speaks only in high-pitched, plaintive cries. This will haunt the doctor. But this episode too is invaded by lively local music, this time when the doctor is involved in a wedding. Instead of the spacious French-style apartment of the property developer, or the wide spaces of the car trip, the screen is filled with the oppressive, cacophonous celebration of a typical folkloric Magrebi wedding, and we can't say if the big doctor's jaunty dancing and forced smile convince anyone.

How does all this fit together? It doesn't. But while there is a kind of sympathetic fallacy in making work that exhibits the flaws one's trying to describe, the filmmaker shows skill as a storyteller and creator of mood.

Reviewed in Hollywood Reporter at Cannes by Jordan Mintzer ("An intriguingly crafted look at contemporary Algeria"), who described the film as bringing together the country's "troubles both past and present" by exploring " the damaged emotional landscape of his homeland." Cannes critics compared Moussaoui's style to Abbas Kiarostami and Leos Carax.

"Separated into three stories that are less connected than they are complementary," Mintzer writes, "the film features various characters from different backgrounds searching for a form of attachment in a country left divided by years of sectarian conflict — most notably the civil war that engulfed Algeria throughout the 1990s. While some parts are stronger than others, through its twists and turns Bird gradually builds into a tender portrait of a place, and a people, looking for ways to come together. A premiere in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar should help push it into foreign festivals and markets," Mintzer concluded.

Until the Birds Return/En attendant les hirondelles, Arabic title "طبيعة الحال" (ṭabi'at al-ḥāl) or "The Nature of the Situation," 113 mins., debuted in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, May 2017; six other international festivals and four countries theatrical release. French release 8 Nov. 2017; AlloCiné press rating a very positive 3.8 with high praise from Libération, Cahiers, and Le Monde.Screened for this review as part of the MoMA/FSLC 2018 New Directors/New Films. A KimStim release.

Showtimes:
Friday, March 30, 8:30pm [MoMA]
Saturday, March 31, 3:30pm [FSLC]

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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