Terrific lead characterizations and edgy camerawork hold their own against a problematic script in Mounia Meddour’s feature debut “Papicha.” This is a film designed to be championed by everyone wanting to support a woman’s right to self-expression: It’s got a female director (not a novelty in the Maghreb), depicts powerful young women refusing to bow down to fundamentalism, and is bursting with energy and likable figures. Yet the screenplay’s seams show so glaringly, and the finish is so tonally mismatched, that notwithstanding audience identification and the inevitable “loosely inspired by real events” tagline, “Papicha” feels conspicuously manipulative. That shouldn’t stall further fest play and Francophone distribution following the film’s Cannes premiere, though sales farther afield may prove more of a challenge.
The setting is Algiers in the 1990s, when the nation was roiled in a bloody civil war that pitted the less-than-democratic government against an increasingly violent Islamist insurgency. Meddour mined parts of her own life, when as the teenage daughter of intellectuals she experienced firsthand the tightening grip of extremists attempting to force their agenda on those deemed too Western in outlook. But sharing the truth of that experience calls for greater care than it’s given here, such that certain real events feel organic and honest rather than merely calculated in the retelling.
University students Nedjima (Lyna Khoudri) and Wassila (Shirine Boutella) are high-spirited best friends who regularly sneak out of their dorm at night to party in a nightclub where Nedjima sells clothes she designs to her peers. The opening sequence is a rapidly edited joy ride, the camera capturing closeup flashes of limbs and clothes as the two run to a waiting car and change into sexy outfits on the way to the club. A frightening roadblock check temporarily reigns in the enthusiasm, but once under the disco’s spell, the hijinks return.
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Though studying French, Nedjima sketches fashion designs at every opportunity, delighting in the creativity and assertive independence that dressmaking provides. Her fury at Islamist posters appearing outside the university walls, demanding that women wear abayas and hijabs — “take care of your image or we will” — reaches a new level of defiance when a group of women veiled in black invade the classroom, denouncing apostasy. Then tragedy strikes when her journalist sister Linda (Meryem Medjkane) is murdered by an Islamist woman. A deeply shaken Nedjima becomes determined to combat the growing tide of intolerance by organizing a fashion show of dresses she’ll make entirely from the haik, the traditional white outer garment worn by Algerian women.
“Papicha” (the word is Algerian slang for a hip, pretty girl) nicely captures the fast-talking energy of Nedjima and her friends, frightened by the uncertainty of a country careening towards aggressive fundamentalism. In a bid to diversify the group, Meddour includes Samira (Amira Hilda Douaouda), a hijab-wearing classmate whose conservative values, so forcefully expressed when she’s first introduced, rather too quickly crumble. Even less soundly conceived are two young men, Mehdi (Yasin Houicha) and Karim (Marwan Zeghbib), introduced as love interests for Nedjima and Wassila, whose seemingly liberal outlooks thinly disguise intolerance and conservatism. Not that those attributes aren’t common, even among the ostensibly broadminded, but the script’s uncertainty of what to do with these characters, and the clumsy way their sudden shifts are laid bare, are fairly representative of several developments that feel shoe-horned into the plot in order make a particular point.
That’s especially true of the wildly misguided ending, manifestly designed to shock audiences via an event not based on a real story. It signals the moment when Meddour no longer trusts the emotional strength of her drama and imprudently tries to deliver a massive kick in the gut, complete with a hackneyed flashback montage, that wholly changes the tone and serves no valid purpose in a narrative already working hard to show the inhumanity of fundamentalism and the chaos of the Algerian Civil War.
Unquestionably the director’s strengths lie in the filmmaking craft, including guiding her excellent company of actors in charismatic performances. Khoudri, already a known quantity thanks to her award-winning turn in “The Blessed,” makes Nedjima a captivating, strong-willed figure who lives in a state of highly-charged emotions; she’s nicely paired with newcomer Boutella, their sharp interplay providing the film’s greatest sparks. Damien Keyeux’s rapid editing together with DP Léo Lefèvre’s close, tactile camera greatly contribute in keeping that energy going while remaining cognizant of when to change the rhythm when required.