It’s fitting that Amin Sidi-Boumédiène uses songs from drone metal band Asva’s “Presences of Absences” album in his feature debut, “Abou Leila,” given how the film feeds on ambiguous presences and unexplained absences. Designed to evoke the sense of violence both real and existential that permeated every part of Algeria during the bloody civil war of the 1990s, this punishing sensorial cri de coeur dispenses with traditional narrative to create a segmented surrealist drama whose roots appear to stem from Michelangelo Antonioni and Wojciech Has, though quite possibly may owe nothing to either one. Impressive in how thoroughly it’s steeped in a miasma of paranoia and fear, this perversely impenetrable patience-tester will find champions only in the most esoteric cinema circles.
It would be wrong however to dismiss “Abou Leila” as all form and no substance: The haunted faces and nightmarish hallucinations reproduce a constant state of trauma more instinctual than most films about conflict. Sidi-Boumédiène’s goal was to get under the skin, not via a storyline but by visualizing his characters’ harrowing mental states, and in this he succeeds. In addition, there are moments of superb filmmaking to be appreciated on a purely intellectual level. Yet taken as a whole, the overlong movie fails to come together, too invested in generating a claustrophobic atmosphere, even in the open desert, to the neglect of everything else.
The opening is a terrific showcase of the director’s symbiotic relationship with DP Kanamé Onoyama, featuring a complex series of long fluid shots seen from multiple points of view during a tense battle between a pair of armed rebels and the police. The scene will come up again later, helping (partly) to explain one character’s background, but given the confusing nature of the storyline, the sequence’s artistry holds up better when disconnected from everything else. As for the protagonists, Sidi-Boumédiène himself acknowledges that they’re not meant to be taken as real figures: “These two characters are representing ideas and thoughts, far more than characters that would purely and simply be identified with,” he states in the pressbook.
Following the stand-off, the film cuts to the desert, with Lotfi (Lyes Salem) and S (Slimane Benouari) traveling south, as far away from Algiers as possible. S is clearly cracking up and Lotfi is putting all his energies into keeping him together, focusing on the pursuit of a terrorist named Abou Leila who may not be real. The writer-director dispenses with concepts of good and bad, never committing to simplistic categorizations, so motivations are unclear and it’s even uncertain whether Lotfi means well or ill. He seems to be trying to protect S, whose recurrent ultra-violent nightmares are visualized without any signal that we’ve entered into a dream state.
The results are disorienting, designed to put the viewer into a state of unease. At the movie’s start, Sidi-Boumédiène quotes from William Blake’s poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “And the just man rages in the wilds / Where lions roam.” The line is the best encapsulation of the film, in which the director uses his characters to rage against a national trauma too profound to tackle in any way but abstraction. Sound is utilized to especially good extra-filmic effect, furthering the sense of rationality slipping further and further away as the characters head deeper into the desert.