Little is known about Nour and Amine, the two young jihadists assigned to sabotage a North African oil refinery in “Divine Wind,” a bare-bones drama from veteran Algerian director Merzak Allouache. The purpose of their mission is unclear, as is the ideology that underpins it and the socioeconomic conditions that led them to this dangerous desert outpost. Allouache’s minimalism extends to the photography, an unadorned black-and-white that keeps the focus on the emotions of his characters rather than any superfluous details that might draw the eye away. Yet this simplicity also spotlights an absence of complexity, not just in the missing political context, but within the hearts of the lonely, desperate warriors who are preparing to die for the cause. Allouache has been a festival fixture since his debut in 1976, but Stateside prospects have been limited — and will likely remain so here.
Rebuking the image of a jihadist as a hardened fighter, Allouache opens with Amine (Mohamed Oughlis) face down in the Saharan desert, furtively dampening the sand with tears. He’s en route to a safe house in Timimoun, Algeria. Once there, his elderly host, El Hadja (Messaouda Boukhira), quietly tends to his needs as he awaits his partner and the delivery of their explosive payload. When Nour (Sarah Layssac) comes knocking in the dead of night, the atmosphere intensifies significantly: Amine is a quiet, sensitive type who wants to do his part in the war, but Nour is a true believer, grim-faced and charged with purpose. They’re an odd pair, but circumstances are pushing them together toward a common fate.
The wait for weapons and the order to move forward introduces an agonizing tension that manifests itself first in nightmares and then in open embrace, like two passengers seated together on a plane that’s going down. Amine’s passiveness frustrates Nour, who believes he should show more discipline and faith, but she has moments of vulnerability, too, and accepts his comfort. Meanwhile, El Hadja intervenes in a way that alters the mission and plunges them further into danger. Nour is prepared to die, expecting paradise to await her on the other side. Amine is plainly in over his head.
What little ambiguity exists in “Divine Wind” comes from Nour, whose motives for getting close to Amine hang somewhere between emotional manipulation and latent desire. As Nour, Layssac barrels through scenes with imposing physicality and a Michelle Rodriguez stink-eye, faithfully resolved to their kamikaze mission. Stark and forceful, Mohamed Tayeb Laggoune’s photography emphasizes the ascetic clarity of Nour’s mindset and the sacrifices expected of both her and Amine, who are not free-thinking humans but battering rams for a larger cause. And like Amine crying into the sand, their pain or misgivings are entirely private, witnessed only by Allouache’s sympathetic gaze.
Yet there are limits to Allouache’s approach. Aside from one heavily telegraphed twist, “Divine Wind” unfolds exactly as expected, beat-for-beat, as certain in its mission as its suicide bombers. While there’s drama in Nour and Amine careening toward near-certain catastrophe, Allouache doesn’t supplement it with deeper insight into their political and religious motives, their psychological deterioration, or the complexity of their feelings for each other. A film so certain in its direction leaves little room for mystery.