As flashbacks begin, the 13-year-old Meyer (Nicolas Olczyk, in a likable perf), though a top student, is expelled from school under new anti-Semitic regulations but manages to get reinstated. He has an older brother, Pierrot (Aurelien Wik), and three sisters, but it’s obvious that Meyer is his mother’s favorite.
As the war drags on and times grow harder, Meyer has his first experience with a woman — a foxy yet sensitive Casbah prostitute — and his first bout of drunkenness. Meyer is a fervent communist who undermines Vichy sensibilities in his own way.
Dripping in local color (with Morocco standing in for Algeria) and evocative period details, pic accomplishes its basic mission, which is to send a love letter to supportive mothers everywhere and the children they raise as best they can. The nitty-gritty of survival — from putting food on the table to selective fibbing — is nicely delineated, as is the adoring complicity between mother and son.
Called upon to exude loving authority, brandish or suppress her pride and even steal from the rich to give to the poor, Loren is a pleasure to watch, although she’s used more as an all-purpose icon than a carefully constructed character. Her brief, potentially hazardous reunion with Noiret in occupied France has genuine emotional heft. But overall, episodes are a little too neat and idealized to make pic truly wrenching or memorable.
Popular thesp Hanin helms his fifth feature with earnest application, mustering a few sequences that rise above the rest. These include an understated, almost silent afternoon on the beach, the unrestrained glee of the populace when the Yanks arrive in Algiers on Nov. 8, 1942, and a nice comic interlude in which Loren is dazzled by the food the Americans spread out for the taking.
The contrast between vivid sunlight outdoors and cool, dimmer interiors is nicely rendered. Vladimir Cosma’s tender, swelling score comes close to overdoing it, but is perfectly in keeping with the aura of bittersweet nostalgia.
Marianne Sagebrecht, as Loren’s sister, has very few lines but registers as an expansive physical presence.
Pic shares a gentle, historical tone with Henri Verneuil’s tender tribute to his loving mother, 1991’s “Mayrig,” in which another Italian star, Claudia Cardinale, portrayed his Armenian mom.