Until the Birds Return (En attendant les hirondelles)


The sad face of a man facing a transition in life.

(2017) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Mohamed Djouhri, Hania Amar, Hassan Kachach, Mehdi Ramdami, Sonia Mekkiou, Chawki Amari, Lamri Kaouane, Aure Atika, Zineddine Hamdouche, Saadia Gacem, Hamid Ben Si Amor, Sensabyi Beghdadi, Imene Amani, Nawel Zeddam, Abdelaziz Zeghbib, Samir El Hakim, Aziz Boukerouni, Nadia Kaci. Directed by Karim Moussaoui

 

A writing professor in college once said that life isn’t like a story; it has no beginning or end; it’s just one long middle that we’re all dropped into and thus we try to muddle our way through as best we can. Maybe it’s for that reason that we like our stories to have beginnings and endings.

This Algerian film is an anthology with a bit of Robert Altman to it; each story is the life of a character that we get to walk in the shoes of for a short time. Mourad (Djouhri) is a developer in Algiers who is in a morass. His ex-wife Nacim (Hamdouche) has summoned him, ostensibly to talk to his indolent son who is about to withdraw from medical school to essentially hang out with his friends, His current wife Rasha (Atika) is dissatisfied with life in Algeria and wishes to move back to Paris; Mourad is disinclined to do so, so Rasha is pushing for a divorce. At the same time, the deal to build a hospital that he and his partner are working on is beginning to look more problematic by the hour. But on his way home from his ex’s house, Mourad’s car breaks down and he ends up witnessing a brutal beating. Terrified, he remains hidden and when the chance to get away comes, he gets is butt home and doesn’t think to call the police. His ineffectiveness haunts him.

His driver Djalil (Ramdami) asks for time off to drive Aicha (Amar) to her wedding in a small village in the desert. On the way there, her father gets food poisoning and must be taken to the hospital; Djalil ends up spending time with Aicha, who it turns out is no stranger to Djalil. They have been lovers for some time, but this arranged marriage to an older man is advantageous.

On the way to the wedding ceremony, Aicha’s father stops to help a man stranded at the side of the road. This turns out to be neurosurgeon Dahman (Kachach) who is facing a pending life change of his own. Awaiting a promotion, he circles around waiting for something to happen rather than demanding that he get the promotion he deserves. Word gets to him that a woman living in a hovel in a poor neighborhood nearby has accused him of something horrible. He is advised to confront the woman, which he does. As it turns out, while he didn’t directly participate in the gang rape that the woman accuses him of, he did nothing to prevent it. A son with emotional and physical issues resulted from the rape and what the woman wants is for the son to be given a name. She asks the doctor for his, but he is not in a position to do so. He is getting married himself in a matter of days. However, he begins to feel guilt towards the woman’s plight.

None of these stories have a resolution; we follow one storyline for a while, then a character from the next storyline has a brief interaction with someone from the first and off we go on the next tangent. There is even an unexpected music video about an hour in, with a kind of Arabic ska song complete with dancing and singing. It is a bit of welcome daffiness in a movie that for the most part is pretty serious.

The movie doesn’t reveal it’s plot so much as let it unfold. We do get brief glimpses of various strata of Algerian society, which gives us a more complete introduction to the country than we might get ordinarily. The women here are for the most part standing up for themselves, something we don’t associate with North African culture. The men tend to be weak and indecisive so from a feminist point of view it’s somewhat refreshing.

I actually ended up liking this movie a lot mainly because we get so thoroughly immersed in the lives of these characters but not all of you might; you are left to draw your own conclusions about the stories and the characters, and you may end up wondering what the point of all of this is. Like life itself, there isn’t always one single point; sometimes we just have to struggle to interpret things as best we can and keep on moving so as to dodge the spears and arrows being lobbed in our general direction. At a time when life is at a standstill, it is comforting to see life as it is, or was, and may well be again, unfolding as it may.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating. The relationships are complex and believable. Unfolds rather than reveals.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and slow-developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (mostly offscreen), some profanity and a description of a gang rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the feature film debut of Moussaoui.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Kanopy, Microsoft, Realeyz
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coffee and Cigarettes
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Mortal Engines

Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)


Of Gods and Men

Brother Christian is none to happy that the liberalized Vatican guidelines don’t allow him to administer corporal punishment any longer.

(2010) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loic Pichon, Xavier Maly, Jean-Marie Frin, Abdelhafid Metalsi, Sabrina Ouazani, Abdallah Moundy, Olivier Perrier. Directed by Xavier Beauvois

 

Courage isn’t necessarily picking up a gun or a weapon. Sometimes it isn’t even uttering a cross word. Fighting for what you believe in takes a special type of courage, I’ll grant you but refusing to fight for it sometimes takes even more. Sometimes the greatest courage is to allow events to run their course.

In a small village in Algeria (not named in the movie but where the actual incident took place) in 1996, there was a remote Trappist Monastery made up of seven aging French monks. Although the village was completely Islamic, the monks live a serene pastoral life of raising their own crops and honey, praying and singing daily (the soundtrack is actually breathtaking with beautiful Gregorian chants), and dispensing medicine and clothing to the impoverished villages. They are not attempting to convert anyone to Catholicism, they simply do what they can to help and otherwise show their devotion to God through their simple lifestyle and their will to do good for those around them.

But the outside world isn’t necessarily a perfect place and Islamic fundamentalist violence has begun to show its ugly head. A group of Bulgarian construction workers are viciously attacked and murdered, their throats slit. Another woman is murdered for not wearing a veil. The violence is escalating throughout the country and the government is concerned for the well-being of the monks. They offer to relocate them somewhere that is at least temporarily safer.

However, Brother Christian (Wilson), the monk elected leader and spokesman of their little group, feels that their place is in the village where they can continue to do good work. The government offers them protection, volunteering to station military men at the monastery but Brother Christian believes this would be inappropriate. Despite the growing danger, he wants to stay. Not all the monks are on board with this idea, however.

Despite the fact that the monks live in harmony with the villagers and offer care free of charge, despite the high regard in which their neighbors hold them, the inevitable happens and terrorists begin to turn their keen eyes on the monastery. It soon becomes obvious that the monks are in mortal danger, with each one reacting in his own way to the prospect of their own deaths staring them in the face. The monastery’s doctor, the 70-something Brother Luc (Lonsdale) is sanguine but others are less so.

This was France’s official entry into the 2011 Foreign Language Film Oscar sweepstakes and it’s easy to see why. Not only is this beautifully filmed – the composition of the various scenes is as close to paintings as film gets – but it is beautifully acted as well. Lonsdale in particular will grab your attention; he is at turns cantankerous and serene. Wilson, best known as the flamboyant Merovingian in the Matrix trilogy, is a quiet leader who persuades rather than commands. His relationship with the village elders is based on trust and respect, and he knows the Koran as well if not better than the terrorists who quote it.

But this is not about terrorism or even death. It’s about belief and faith, and how powerful those things can be even in the face of pain and death. This is a movie that invites quiet contemplation. Much of the first part of the film depicts the daily life of the monks; it makes the second half so much more powerful because of it. American audiences might have trouble sitting through the first part but I found it to be very evocative. Who wouldn’t love a lifestyle so simple and so fulfilling?

This is a depiction of humanity both at its worst and at its best. You may recoil at the inhumanity and cruelty of men, but you will be uplifted by the courage and nobility of men as well. Catholics have taken their fair share of shots lately. This is a fictionalized version of these events but nevertheless I must confess that this movie made me prouder to be Catholic than I have been in a very long time.

WHY RENT THIS: Heartbreaking and soul-stirring. Marvelous performances all around but particularly by Lonsdale and Wilson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very understated.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images including one scene of devastating violence and also  bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won three Cesars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) in 2011, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Lonsdale.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette in which the actual monastery where these events took place is visited, and also another one in which author John W. Kiser, who wrote a book on the events, discusses the real Tibehirine monks at Merrimack College with Augustine academics.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $42.2M on an unreported production budget; this was undoubtedly a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Where Do We Go Now?

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: I’m Still Here