Despite vast differences in style, temperament and life priorities, there is palpable closeness between Zorah, Nohra and Djamila, the central French-Algerian siblings of Yamina Benguigui’s generations-spanning yet emotionally and visually flat familial movie “Sisters.”
Played respectively by the legendary Isabelle Adjani (who is inexplicably wooden here), Maïwenn and Rachida Brakni, three actors who are aptly of Algerian background or descent, the trio pursue their lives as contemporary, independent women in Paris, following their own voices in their chosen fields. A mother and the oldest sister, Zorah is artistic and bohemian, different with her free spirit from the straitlaced Djamila, a vocal politician we often see defending the rights of Muslims in France. Nohra, on the other hand, seems to be the most unruly persona of the bunch, struggling to hold on to any employment longer than a few weeks and suffering a mental condition the film teases yet conceals until the final act.
“Sisters” is quick to identify the roots of the siblings’ unique solidarity in an early scene where they bicker with their immigrant mother, Leïla (Fettouma Bouamari). Through a series of painfully unnatural and expository dialogue lines — a recurring deficiency of the film that works against a committed cast — we are told that Leïla left an Algeria in crisis for France decades ago and got divorced from her husband so that her daughters could be free, away from the abusive patriarchal structure that was crippling their youth. But those actions, as we soon find out, have cost Leïla’s new matriarchal order a great deal, with the girls’ father abducting their brother, Rheda, and hiding him in a then-newly decolonized Algeria where the laws favor men in such cases. But the sisters have never given up the hope of finding Rheda one day, living with an open wound that’s been fracturing their existence for decades.
It’s with a strangely abrupt impulse that Zorah rushes to stage a play that depicts and processes the horrors of their childhood, a decision that causes much turmoil within her family. Benguigui uses the rehearsals of this play as an excuse to interject haphazard flashbacks into the narrative, revealing all the traumatizing events — from domestic violence to a harrowing instance of sexual assault — that the women had to endure in the family’s former, politically unstable country. Far from the soul-crushing interludes Benguigui evidently wants them to be, these flashbacks have an unpolished, homemade feel, looking more like amateurish reenactments than poignant memories.
Not helping matters is the dreary prose of the film’s team of writers, a crowded group consisting of main scribes Benguigui and Abdel Raouf Dafri, as well as collaborating writers Maxime Saada, Farah Benguigui and Jonathan Palumbo. It’s one that flattens every potentially stirring situation and rushes through or omits details that could help the audience form a bond with the characters. In that regard, it feels confusing when the women unite for a trip to Algeria upon hearing that their long-estranged father has had a stroke and is on his death bed. Why haven’t they taken this trip earlier if the goal is to find their brother? What makes them think that their father’s illness will now enable them to solve the mystery of Rheda’s whereabouts? Benguigui’s film doesn’t bother to answer these glaring questions.
The scenes in contemporary Algeria (shot in actual locations) are at least relatively more thought-provoking than those in Paris, delving into questions of dual identity and the complex headspace of immigrants who feel they belong to an ambiguous in-between. The conversations that take place between the women and their idealist cousin Soumaya (Faïza Guene, the strongest part of the cast), a hardheaded activist who chose to stick with her motherland and Algerian roots, are especially insightful and tender, underscoring pressure-cooker frustrations between those who left for survival and their family and loved ones who got left behind. But Benguigui falls short of weaving these modest thematic ambitions with the unsolved mystery at the heart of the women’s quest, which fizzles with little dramatic impact — just like Zorah’s stage play that “Sisters” carelessly abandons. It’s telling that the most rousing feature of Benguigui’s outing is Amin Bouhafa’s richly textured score, a melancholic tune that goes undeserved by a film that squanders the deeply personal material at its core.