Film Review: ‘The Rooftops’

Considered Algeria's most important living director, Merzak Allouache delivers one of his best films with this multi-stranded tale.

Es-Stouh (The Rooftops) Venice Film Festival

Following the 2012 Cannes-preemed “The Repentant,” the man considered Algeria’s most important living director is on a roll with “The Rooftops,” easily one of Merzak Allouache’s best. Encompassing five different Algiers neighborhoods organized according to the five calls to prayer, Allouache presents a microcosm of Algerian society to expose the nation’s sharp class and religious divides, including a metaphoric representation of the country itself that’s astonishingly bold even if the symbolism borders on the heavy-handed. While some nuances will work best for locals, “Rooftops” combines choral complexity with accusatory critique, and deserves fest attention along with Francophone theatrical play.

After years in the director’s seat, Allouache has earned the right to tackle multiple stories, proving he can juggle them all in a manner that satisfies each point and every character. Like most of his best works, this is without question an issue film, and rather than limiting himself to fundamentalism or the legacy of the civil war, he’s incorporated the entire spectrum, crucially foregrounding his despair at a nation so inured to violence that it no longer means anything.

In the Notre Dame d’Afrique section of the city, Adlan (Mohamed Takiret) is being tortured by order of Hamoud (Mourad Khen) in a half-finished apartment block. He’s promised he can go back to France if he’ll just sign a paper; Allouache doesn’t explicitly reveal the nature of the dispute, though it clearly has to do with underhanded real-estate dealings. They have to hide when a director (Salima Abada) and two crewmen come to scout the view from the roof for their docu “Algiers, Jewel of the Arab World.”

In the Bab el-Oued district, Selouma (Nassima Belmihoub) has a squat on the roof of an upscale apartment complex with her drug-addled great-nephew, Krimo (Djemil Adlan), and his half-crazed mother, Aicha (Amal Kateb). When the landlord (Hamid Remas) comes to evict them, Krimo takes desperate action.

Uncle Larbi (Rachid Benalal) lives shackled in a wooden cage on the roof of a building in the Casbah, telling stories, through the slats, of Independence War heroics to young Layla (Myriam Ait el Hadj). Toward evening the roof is taken over by an Islamist prayer meeting during which a preacher (Kader Affak) praises the late Muammar Gaddafi as a martyr to the Muslim cause.

A band meets on a rooftop downtown to practice and hash out ideas for future gigs. Assia (Adila Bendimerad) is spooked by Neila (Meriem Medjkane), a scarved woman on a neighboring terrace who’s been staring at her all day. When a man comes out and beats Neila in full view, Assia demands they do something but her male colleagues tell her it’s not their business, and besides, he may be a brother or husband.

The final rooftop is in Belcourt, where alcoholic Halim (Aissa Chouat) has a squat in a grungy washroom and charges people for occasional use of the space. Sheikh Lamine (Ahcene Benzerari) arrives, renting a room where he pretends to offer pastoral care to Fatiha (Yasmine Abdelmoumen), though he’s really getting his jollies by having her take off her niqab and beating out her evil influences.

Each story begins with the first call to prayer and ends by the day’s last chant of the muezzin, shuttling back and forth between characters without dropping the threads and providing just enough information to keep interest piqued. Though each person is a bit too much of a stand-in for a type or concept, they’re all developed just enough to feel real. Corruption is an inescapable undercurrent, tied to real-estate speculation and absentee landlords.

Class is also a key; many rooftops have illegal constructions where the working class live, tolerated by their bourgeois neighbors but treated as lesser creatures. Gender relations are equally frayed, even among Westernized middle-class young people like the band members. Allouache has a healthy, if biting, sense of humor, enjoyably apparent in how he draws the entitled movie director, boasting of her prize at the Oran Film Festival and demanding her cameraman bypass the Christian and Jewish cemeteries while panning over the city; as she tells her crew, why include such “foreign” places in a film about the Algerian capital? There’s also a terrific, unexpected scene when a police chief (Mohammed Jouhri) pays Selouma a call.

However, the most audacious figure of all is Uncle Larbi, living off the past with grand stories of questionable accuracy, chained up by Islamists yet unwilling to escape once freed. Uncle Larbi, of course, is Algeria itself, so used to violence that the value of human life has become cheapened. “The Rooftops” ranks alongside Allouache’s “Bab el-Oued City” and “The Repentant” as some of the most forceful self-critiques to come out of Algeria, and while the latter is more focused, and arguably a better film, the director’s latest has plenty of muscle.

Visuals are well balanced between edgy handheld and beautiful panoramas that take in the city in all its variety, from well-to-do Mediterranean apartments on the Corniche to the higgledy-piggledy layers of the Casbah. The use of space outside the frame is notable, and editing is first-rate.

Film Review: ‘The Rooftops’

<p>Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 6, 2013. (Also in London Film Festival – Debate.) Running time: <strong>91 MIN.</strong> Original title: "Es-Stouh"</p>

  • Production: <p>(Algeria-France) A Baya Films, JBA Prod. production, with the participation of Fdatic Ministere Algerien de la Culture, Aide aux Cinema du Monde, Cine plus. (International sales: Elle Driver, Paris.) Produced by Merzak Allouache, Marianne Dumoulin, Jacques Bidou.</p>
  • Crew: <p>Directed, written by Merzak Allouache. Camera (color), Frederic Derrien; editor, Sylvie Gadmer; music, Allouache; sound, Philippe Bouchez, Xavier Thibault, Julien Perez; assistant director, Nadjib Oulebsir.</p>
  • With: <p>Nassima Belmihoub, Adila Bendimerad, Aissa Chouat, Mourad Khen, Akhram Djeghim, Amal Kateb, Djemil Adlan, Ahmed Dahane, Mohammed Jouhri, Hamid Remas, Ahcene Benzerari, Hamza Boukrif, Yasmine Abdelmoumen, Abderrahmane Ikariouane, Nabil Asli, Myriam Ait el Hadj, Aida Kechoud, Kader Affak, Rachid Benalal, Mohammed Ghouli, Djamil Ghouli, Fethi Nadjem, Meriem Medjkane, Mohamed Takiret, Redouane Merabet, Mebarek Faradji, Salima Abada, Nadjib Oulebsir, Mohamed Bendaoud. (Arabic, French dialogue)</p>