There’s so much good in the first half of “The Man Rrom Oran” that the unfortunate slide into melodramatic territory disappoints but doesn’t wipe away the trenchant cynicism that comes before. Impressive multihyphenate Lyes Salem directs, writes and stars in this epic drama about Algerian independence, seen through the relationship of two men, one a modest idealist, the other a consummate wheeler-dealer. Aside from superb acting, “Oran” is particularly notable for the way it questions Algerian foundational myths, used to disguise one-party rule. Multiple award wins at festivals including Abu Dhabi and Brussels should catch programmers’ attention.
A November rollout in France saw decent returns, but controversy, including a fatwa, delayed the film’s Algerian release until late January. Touchy conservative supporters of the ruling FLN party objected to scenes of revolutionaries — their founding fathers — meeting and drinking in bars, though clearly the real reason for their objections is that Salem depicts certain (fictional) FLN leaders in unflattering terms. In concept, “The Man From Oran” fits the kind of soul-searching, multi-decade exploration of a nation’s psyche that all cinemas should be producing every generation or so, yet is discouraged if not outright suppressed in Algeria, where their War of Independence remains cast in a hallowed, untouchable glow designed to protect those in power.
The pic begins in 1956 with an exciting scene in which Djaffar (Salem) discovers his “too French” friend Hamid (Khaled Benaissa) is actually a revolutionary. Djaffar ends up killing a French landowner and is reluctantly impressed into the maquis (freedom fighters); five years later, independence is declared and Djaffar is able to return to his village a hero. That’s when he learns his wife is dead, and the paternity of his young son, Bachir (Nabil Daalachi), is open to question.
In the meantime, Hamid’s become a big shot, his charismatic smile radiating for miles, and he wants Djaffar to be part of his new Algeria, promoting him to government adviser and giving him an office and a great big desk that dwarfs its occupant. Djaffar the idealist is fired up with enthusiasm for his country’s manufacturing possibilities, yet he’s given little concrete to do. Instead he watches, mildly discomfited, as Hamid becomes ever richer, amassing a fancy villa, an American wife (Anne Zander); a yacht, and friends like suspect Russian businessman Feodor (Miglen Mirtchev). Old maquis buddy Farid (Najib Oudghiri) is outspoken regarding what he sees as Hamid’s betrayal of their revolutionary ideals, but good-natured everyman Djaffar allows his friend, and the party, to rewrite his history.
All this makes a powerful statement about the revolution’s hijacked goals, which is why Salem’s decision to shift gears and privilege melodramatic elements feels so unsatisfactory. The character of tainted investigative journalist Mehdi Laloui (Samir El Hakim) is poorly integrated, but worse is the sudden focus on the young adult Bachir (Abdellah Boukefa) and the question of his paternity. What began as a subtly argued, tonally balanced tale suddenly develops pitch problems, and the logical story buildup is damaged by unexpected, overly broad emotions.
Even with such flaws, “The Man From Oran” remains a biting commentary on the way the revolution was sold out for power and money, offering a much-needed corrective to persistent official rhetoric. Scenes such as one in which classical Arabic is made mandatory show up how the FLN cynically forced citizens into a performance of patriotism while repressing their democratic principles. No wonder the film has shaken up guardians of the War of Independence, who focus on cosmetic “sins” like alcohol consumption rather than entrenched corruption.
The acting is superb throughout, with Salem and Benaissa true standouts: Djaffar’s transition from a simple guy thrust into action, slowly awakening to the taint of his situation, is movingly handled, while Hamid’s ever-present smile, sunnily covering up his cupidity, leaves a lasting chill. Tech credits are topnotch, reflecting the nearly $4 million budget: Pierre Cottereau’s excellent lensing (he also worked on the helmer’s debut, “Masquerades”) captures the exciting sweep of the tumultuous revolutionary period, followed by the more sober, steely atmosphere of the 1980s; ditto Florence Ricard’s editing. Music choices can occasionally be odd, such as the unexpected insertion of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy.”