A mawkish but charming replay of the eternal story of star-crossed lovers, "Bitter Oranges" evokes a post-WWII Algiers in which hatred and bloodshed lie in the very near future. First-time helmer Michel Such's pic is a flawed "Romeo and Juliet" with large doses of local color and an attractive cast. Although a lemon at the local box office, "Oranges" is assured of a presence on the fest circuit, followed by a cable career around the Mediterranean, and may yet prove a sentimental favorite at the vid store. Such draws on autobiographical experience to weave his motley tissue of life in Algiers, 1945, among hard-working French and equally industrious Arabs. Despite its frequent failings, pic is a warm-hearted and affectionate look back at an epochal period, and preaches a gospel of tolerance in intolerant times. When concentrating on the pains of boyhood, Such shows abundant talent as a sensitive scripter. But his orchestration of the sexual, colonial and racial politics implicit in the story is more problematic. On the day of the German surrender in Europe, sensuous bombshell Alice (Sabrina Ferilli), a Franco-Algerian with a strict sense of who's Euro and who's not, gives birth in Algiers to a younger brother for her son Antoine (Heykel Ben Arab) and a younger son for her baker-hunk of a husband, Paco (Bruno Todeschini).
Alas, Alice’s hot-to-trot sister, Angele (Rohmer discovery Clara Bellar), is already falling for Said (Lilah Dadi), Paco’s reliable right-hand man in front of the bread ovens. Pic covers their courtship as Angele, the pushy Frenchwoman, tries to convince the proper Arab-Algerian that theirs is a love with a future. In the process, Angele helps foment a strike at the cigarette factory where she works, gets Said disowned by his folkloric parents, incites the local French bigots into murderous mayhem and ruins her sister’s life.
Pic also follows the professional trajectory of the laid-back Paco and the emotional torment of Antoine, his prepubescent son. The latter, a character based on Such’s boyhood self, rings the truest and, thanks to an able perf by newcomer Ben Arab, comes to dominate “Bitter Oranges.”
Such’s narrative bulimia overwhelms the cinematic means at his disposal. Capably shot by Michel Cenet, film suffers from an embarrassment of subplot, and, in some places, a slapdash presentation of otherwise explosive situations, especially the harassment of a retarded female worker by an evil factory owner.
Given the political turmoil in present-day Algeria, pic was shot in neighboring Tunisia and thus loses some of its dramatic credibility as we are led from one immaculately beautiful suburb to the next. Complementing this physical beauty is a cast that consists of compellingly fetching young men and women, despite their supposed near-destitution and impending despair. Anissa Bediri’s costumes are attractive, if a tad skimpy for the period: The Algerian Carmens in the tobacco factory spend much of their time almost falling out of their dresses.