A fast-moving comedy set in Paris and featuring two of the biggest stars of Rai music, Khaled and Cheb Mami, “100% Arabic” is at the same time a scornful satire against the religious fundamentalists whose narrow interpretation of Islam pits them against the winning life force of music. After an exhilarating screening in Venice’s Mezzogiorno sidebar, pic’s French distrib should see major returns on the low-budget production. Shot by Algerian exile Mahmoud Zemmouri with more conviction than style, its main audience will probably be ethnic, but pic has enough joie de vivre and good sounds to trickle into related markets.
One hundred percent Arabic is what the local inhabitants call their rent-controlled neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris. Most are the offspring of immigrants from North Africa who feel caught between French culture and their Arab roots. They blend the two in a popular local band, Rap Oriental, whose music combines Algerian Rai sounds with Western rap, a symbol of urban rebellion. Leaders of the band, who sing their own songs and others’, are played by Khaled and Cheb Mami.
Friction immediately arises with the bigoted imam Slimane (Mouss), a greedy hypocrite who runs his mosque on the kickbacks he menacingly extracts from local merchants. The mayor, who is up for re-election, backs Slimane on the theory that religion will keep the neighborhood delinquents out of trouble. But as Zemmouri repeatedly shows, what the kids need is a modern cultural model able to blend their dual roots in East and West.
Joyful and light-footed, Zemmouri’s camera zips around the neighborhood, focusing on the immigrant community’s positive energy instead of the drugs and violence emphasized by angry French directors including Kassovitz. There is a pasted-together story about the band splitting up and reuniting, comic visits to discos and mosques, and a predictably rousing final outdoor concert, which sees rap and Rai triumph. Not surprisingly, Zemmouri — a Paris resident for the last 15 years — has received death threats from Islamic extremists, who haven’t cared much for any of his comedies (“From Hollywood to Tamanrasset,” “The Honor of the Tribe”).