“Return to Algiers” is an old-fashioned yet extremely pertinent tale of Algeria’s tortuous history vis-a-vis its citizens and the so-called pieds noirs, French Algerians who were forced to flee for Europe at the declaration of independence. Moving, well-made pic explores personal allegiances and historical imperatives using a tone that’s equal parts cinematic and literary. The film just might break the box office curse that has met nearly every attempt over the past decade to confront the human legacy of the Algerian War. Regardless of its local reception, pic, which has already been sold to several Scandi, German-speaking and French-lingo territories, is a good candidate for fests. An English version was shot side-by-side with the French and Arabic original.
The Algerian conflict holds a comparable place in the French national psyche to that of the Vietnam war in recent American history. (On March 19, 38 years after the end of the armed conflict in which tens of thousands of people died, the French government acknowledged that the Algerian War was in fact a war and honored the war dead.) France has not yet produced a film with the popular clout of a “Coming Home,” “The Deer Hunter” or “Apocalypse Now,” and while Alexandre Arcady’s latest is unlikely to make a comparable dent, it’s a step in the right direction.
In the summer of 1994, successful news anchorman Pierre Nivel (Antoine de Caunes) is accosted at network headquarters in Paris by an elderly Algerian man with an urgent message. Although it’s not common knowledge in France, Pierre spent his first 17 years in Algiers. When the French — many of them established in Algeria for several generations — were driven out in 1962, Pierre left for France with his family. The message is from the girl he left behind, his Arab sweetheart Leila, urging him to come to Algiers on a rescue mission.
Although Pierre hosts the 1 p.m. national newscast and is up for a promotion to the prime evening slot, he drops everything and flies to Algiers, the land of his childhood, where he hasn’t set foot for over 30 years. As pic unfolds in 1994 and in well-handled flashbacks, we understand why Pierre might jeopardize his career and undertake such an iffy exploit.
Pierre must give the slip to a tight security detail to contact Leila, who, via various subterfuges, begs him to get her daughter, Amina (played, as is her mother in flashbacks, by Nozha Khouadra), out of the country. Their lives have been doubly hellish since the headstrong, defiant Amina, whose recently deceased father promised her in marriage to a fundamentalist thug, dared remove her veil during a public demonstration.
Sharp, pragmatic and hard as nails, Amina has no intention of being forced into marriage with an armed terrorist. Both protected and endangered by his status as a famous foreigner, Pierre has to think on his feet while trying to reconcile his passionate, truncated youth with the “successful” figure he’s become.
Tragic, consistently engaging story, freely adapted from a novel by movie exec Rene Bonnell, is told with lively strokes by Arcady, himself a pied noir — the pejorative but accepted nickname given to people of French origin living in Algeria during French rule — and many of whose films have featured North African themes. Noble but never condescending treatment extols the beauty of love and friendship tempered by harsh political realities.
Location lensing in Algeria and Tunisia conveys pic’s precarious mix of unease and intimidation in beautiful, sun-drenched surroundings. With the support of Algeria’s president, “Return to Algiers” became the first French production since Algerian independence to lens some scenes in Algiers. (Arcady was obliged to shoot his previous pics with Tunisia or Morocco standing in for the country he left at age 13.)
De Caunes conveys the dismay of a man trying to make up for the errors of history in his own small way. Francois-Xavier Noah is very good as the young Pierre, who loves books and who, via Arab friends and his relationship with Leila, is more implicated in the local culture than his “Franco-French” high school classmates. Khouadra, who made an impressive debut in 1990 at age 15 in Rachid Bouchareb’s “Cheb,” at last has the opportunity to give another bold, admirable perf. Samy Naceri (“Taxi”) lends authority to a late-arriving sequence as one of Pierre’s now-grown childhood buddies.
Lively, appealing score reinforces moods from romance to terror.