The desperation of young Algerians risking life and limb to leave their country is the theme of vet helmer Merzak Allouache’s unsatisfying “Harragas.” The first quarter nicely captures the hopelessness felt by large segments of the population, but a melodramatic plot turn and uninspired lensing when crossing the sea minimizes earlier effectiveness. With far better immigration dramas around, “Harragas” is unlikely to make a similar journey across the waters.
The title, literally translated as “to burn,” is slang for refugees smuggled out of Algeria who burn their documents in case they’re captured. Rachid (Nabil Asli) reaches the breaking point when his best friend, Omar, kills himself, so he pays illegal smuggler Hassan (Okacha Touita) to get him across to Spain, and a new life. Joining him are Nasser (Seddik Benyagoub), Omar’s independent sister Imene (Lamia Boussekine), and some Saharan peasants, but dirty cop Mustapha (Samir El Hakim) foolishly takes over and the open boat ride turns disastrous. Allouache (“Chouchou”) seems stymied by the limited space within the dinghy, though earlier landscapes are beautifully shot. Rachid’s ubiquitous narration has no need for obvious lines like “The bald guy was bad news.”