Taking a roundabout approach to the ills of modern Algeria, “The Harem of Madame Osmane” is an offbeat comedy revolving around an apartment building run by a former freedom fighter who vents her frustrations by manipulating other women. This first feature by Nadir Mokneche, lensed in Morocco due to the dangerous political situation in Algeria, breaks through a weak script to make a sobering statement about the ingrained values that limit human relationships. In the currently desolate panorama of African cinema, the film stands out for its originality and should find considerable fest play this year.
Story is set in 1993 Algiers, when the first signs of civil war were appearing on streets patrolled by armed soldiers. In her corner house enclosed by high walls, Madame Osmane (Carmen Maura) is a comic tyrant, intent on controlling the lives of daughter Sakina (Linda Slimani), half-mad maid Meriem (Biyouna), French-born young wife Yasmine (Myriam Amarouchene) and a host of tenants.
Mokneche has difficulty controlling the farcical tone and broad humor of the overlong opening setup, marred by over-the-top shrieking from protags and mucho repetition. Viewers may also tire of the house setting, which far from being a harem is a prison created by the matriarch out of her fear of not seeming respectable without a man around. (Her beloved husband, also an ex-freedom fighter, is living in France with another woman.)
It comes as a relief when the women drive to a wedding party along the coast, where the chicly dressed Osmane manages to ruin Sakina’s engagement to her biology teacher by insulting his mother, a tattooed peasant woman. Yasmine is shocked to discover her husband has a second wife, a saucy redhead (Nadia Kaci).
In the general uproar, Osmane ferociously imposes her will, bringing on pic’s unexpectedly tragic but appropriate finale.
Held together by Maura’s strong central perf, which finds focus and intensity as the film proceeds, pic reveals many surprising sides to femme life in Algeria, from the women’s sexiness and freedom when they’re alone, to the traditional values they force on themselves. Tech work takes a back seat to the upfront perfs.