Orson Welles said that “the classy gangster is a Hollywood invention,” but “Chouf” isn’t a Hollywood production and its gangsters are decidedly not classy. At one point, they pick up a four-foot-tall informant and shut him in a chest freezer, more for fun than as part of a coherent interrogation strategy. The audience’s point of identification throughout is Sofiane (Sofian Khammes), a bright student who takes a trip home from college in Lyon to visit his family — only to see his older brother, who is mixed up in drug dealing, gunned down in the street. Thus is the stage set for a revenger’s tragedy of modest commercial appeal close to home. Given a profile boost by its Cannes slot and the presence of Rachid Bouchareb as producer, it may drum up modest theatrical or ancillary business in French-speaking territories, but is unlikely to travel further.
Keen to find out why his brother was killed, Sofiane ingratiates himself with his brother’s gang. In an arc familiar to those with even a passing interest in the well-populated genre of the gangster bildungsroman (“Scarface,” “GoodFellas,” “A Prophet” and so on), this plucky outsider turns out to have a certain natural facility for the trade, at least where business strategy is concerned.
Taking a page straight out of Stringer Bell’s playbook in “The Wire,” lessons learned in economics class are applied to drug dealing, with a McDonald’s-style drive-in scheme established for street sales, small bonus gifts (papers, filters) offered to loyal customers and different brands of product established: basic for the budget-conscious, and top quality for the organic gluten-free crowd.
Like other rise-of-a-gangster tales before it, “Chouf” doesn’t really have much of a message to express other than the radical notion that life can be nasty, brutish and short for young men living in deprived areas. Inevitably, however, all of the film’s most exciting, pulse-quickening scenes are based on violence, making it hard to take terribly seriously as a moral tragedy. The medium is on the naughty boys’ side, even if the message isn’t.
To the film’s credit, we return time and again to the spectacle of Sofiane finding the waste of human life to be traumatic or untenable. He’s thankfully not quite one of those initially reluctant movie gangsters who suddenly abandon their humanitarian credentials halfway through the runtime in order to bust out their best Pacino impression.
None of the actors are major stars, which helps to keep proceedings feeling authentic. Aside from relative newcomer Khammes, who rises decently to the challenge of his first lead, no one is required to offer a great deal of subtlety in their performance choices. Hulking physical presence Foued Nabba impresses as credibly menacing gang leader Réda, a man who ices insubordinate gang members with roughly the same amount of remorse as most people feel about trimming their fingernails. (As is often par for the course with gangster films, there aren’t many parts that would have had agents hurrying to call their favorite female clients: The women’s roles are basically divided between the categories of “sad-eyed mom” and “disapproving girlfriend.”)
Competent craft contributions are all geared towards situating the picture recognizably in the same audio-visual world as southern French hip-hop, with Patrick Ghiringhelli’s camera specializing in urban decay footage of the banlieues and their inhabitants. Interiors feel lived-in and realistic, with some sunny clifftop location work perhaps the only real visual surprise on offer.