With “Exiles,” Algerian-French helmer Tony Gatlif braids together themes that have been threaded in and out of his 14 films into one sturdy hammock. Result gives ample support for fine perfs from leads Romain Duris and Lubna Azabal. Arguably Gatlif’s most personal film in years, pic follows a pair of Parisian slackers from France to helmer’s birthplace, Algiers. Film’s gypsies, dirty seductions, and lashings of music make for a Gatlif brew that’s headier than usual and might improve the chance of quenching aud thirsts in territories beyond France where helmer’s work still sells best.
Born in Algeria in 1948 and exiled to France in the early 1960s, Gatlif first tussled cinematically with his colonial past in 1978’s “La Terre au Ventre,” set during the Algerian war of independence, and as recently as 1999 with “I Was Born a Stork.” His favorite breed of protagonists are outsiders, be they waifs, as in “Rue du Depart” and “Mondo,” or the many and varied tribes of gypsies he has celebrated with mixed results in the docu “Latcho Drom” and fiction features such as “The Princes,” “Gadjo Dilo” (still his most internationally successful film) and the recent “Swing.”
This time, gypsies only get a walk-on part in the story of Zano Boulanger (played by “Gadjo Dilo” and “Cigone” star Romain Duris, charismatic as ever) and Naima (sultry “25 Degrees in Winter” player Lubna Azabal). First introduced buck naked in a bedroom in Paris rocking to a strong, Patti Smith-meets-techno-style opening track by Gatlif and collaborator Delphine Mantoulet, the two hardly seem to know each other but decide to travel to Algeria by train, bus and foot.
Zano’s descended from French colonials expelled from the North African country in 1962, while Naima’s the daughter of Algerian Arabs. He claims “music is my religion,” while she is a standard-issue Gatlif sexpot with a filthy mind, a killer bod with a vaguely hinted-at trauma to overcome.
Neither speaks Arabic or really has a clue as to what they’re in for, but they’re hot for each other — and in Naima’s case, the odd handsome Spaniard they chance upon in a flamenco bar — and manage to take plenty of rest breaks for al fresco shags along the way, shot with surprising discretion.
After a brush with gypsies who steal just one of Zano’s boots, the two hook up with an Algerian couple, Leila (Leila Makhlouf) and Habib (Habib Cheik) bound in the other direction for Paris or Amsterdam. They laugh indulgently at the Northerners determination to see a country they’re trying to escape. After a row over Naima’s dalliance with the Spaniard (unnamed in credits) and a short stint picking plums for cash, the twosome stows away aboard a ship they think is bound for Algiers with a letter of introduction to their new friend Leila’s family.
Nothing goes quite as planned, but they eventually make it to the city where Leila’s brother, Said (Zouhir Gacem), acts as a guide. He helps Zano find his grandparents’ flat, still miraculously intact right down to the Boulanger family portraits on the walls, and then leads them to a Sufi musical ritual at which Naima has a spiritual epiphany — but only after suffering from severe culture shock and a bit of abuse from a local outraged by her skimpy clothes.
Overall, pic works well as a road movie, swinging and easy for the most part but gaining a certain gravitas in its later stretches. The final spiritual awakening, however, doesn’t entirely convince, descending into a certain sentimental, hippy mysticism that’s always just a caravan ride away in much of helmer’s recent work. Still, his take on Algerian culture is far less romanticized than one would expect given story’s trajectory. Moreover, it’s impressive in itself that filmmakers managed to get into and film inside the closed-off country in the first place.
Gatlif displays a sincere affection for both the central and peripheral characters. Main thesps put meat on the bones of their thinly written parts and have chemistry enough together to run a small pharmaceuticals factory. Rest of cast appears from their slightly stiff line readings to be non-pro, but most have an easy grace in front of the camera. As usual with a Gatlif film, it looks as if a good time is being had by all.
Collaborating with composer Mantoulet, Gatlif mixes electronic instruments and techno beats with more traditional ethnic tunes to create his most varied and funkiest sounding score in years. Rest of tech credits all pro.