×

Film Review: ‘The Rooftops’

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

With:

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)

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Rooftops'

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

Production:

(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.

Crew:

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.

With:

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)

More Film

  • Suro

    Lastor, ‘The Endless Trench’s’ Irusoin, Malmo Team for Mikel Gurrea’s ‘Suro’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN – Barcelona-based Lastor Media and Malmo Pictures have teamed with San Sebastian’s Irusoin to produce “Suro” (The Cork), the feature debut of Mikel Gurrea and a product of San Sebastian’s Ikusmira Berriak program. The film stars Laia Costa, who broke through with Sebastian Schipper’s “Victoria” and also serves as executive producer, and Pol López [...]

  • Ane

    Madrid’s ECAM Incubator Develops Terrorism Drama 'Ane'

    SAN SEBASTIAN — For the second year in a row, the ECAM Madrid Film School has paired a number of up-and-coming filmmakers with various industry veterans for an Incubator program part of the school broader development arm called The Screen. For its initial edition in 2018, this Incubator selected five feature projects, putting the selected [...]

  • Roma Cinematography

    'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' and 'Roma' Win LMGI Awards for Motion Pictures

    Two major 2018 releases – actioner “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and critics’ darling “Roma” – were honored for film location work by the Location Managers Guild International at a ceremony this evening at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The 6th Annual LMGI Awards also recognized “Chernobyl” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” [...]

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content