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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
We Unhappy Three
by Donald Levit

Third World” is the term most used, but especially in light of current events, the situation is infinitely more complex. More accurate may be The Other World, the felicitous title of self-exiled Algerian Merzak Allouache’s study of a modern, French-born countrywoman, or Beur, who searches for her native-born European-raised fiancé in Algiers and beyond. Although French encouragement far outweighed Britain’s in their respective ex-colonies, Arab cinema has been dominated by Egypt and in any case not traveled well.

A welcome -- indeed, necessary -- tempering of the West’s view of the Muslim sphere as unself-analytical and monolithic, is the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s September 3-16 (2004) “Cairo Tales: Discovering Salah Abou Seif & Recent Cinema from the Arab World.” Comprising six of the title director’s 1956-77 Cairo films and thirteen by others (including a number of women) from the last half-decade, the compilation reveals unsuspected depths of awareness and self-criticism. Sometimes censored in their homelands, often depicting the clash between indigenous tradition and Western modernity, the filmmakers nevertheless tackle a range of issues that extend beyond geography: homosexuality, women’s rights, deracination, economic as well as social inequalities, family structure, idealism, intolerance -- and, of course, religious fanaticism.

One of four pre-screened, titled after the national soccer chant, “One, two, three, Viva l’Algerie,” co-French Viva Laldjerie is an indication of a reemergence of Algeria’s film industry from the politically and culturally disastrous 1990s. Like another co-French production, Tunisian Raja Amari’s superior Satin Rouge, this film from Nadir Moknèche delves into female-male and daughter-mother relationships and the famous world of cabaret entertainment but, more ambitious, centers on three women rather than one.

Clearly the linchpin is Goucem Sandjak (Lubna Azabal), attractive and modern, a twenty-seven-year-old Mouffok Photo Studio clerk. Sexually promiscuous, with two abortions behind her but faithful by her lights to a married lover of three years, Dr. Aniss Sassi (Lounès Tazairt), she presses for the security of marriage, while he lies to evade the issue. She lives with, and supports, her widowed mother Papicha (Biyouna), who once was a celebrated nightclub dancer and dreams of breast implants in France and reopening the Moulin Rouge, closed to become a mosque during fundamentalist unrest.

A wide cast of characters flits around, many of them living at their second-rate Pension Debussy, including concierge Nounou (Kamel Abdeli) and his growing family, particularly young daughter Tiziri (Lynda Harchaoui). Not roundly brought in until late -- and this is an error, because the relationship needs greater preparation -- is another neighbor, Fifi (Nadia Kaci). Thirty-three and bewigged, a prostitute working out of her apartment, this third woman has the clichéd heart of gold, tries to take Goucem and her love problems under her wing, and has a National Security officer “steady” of her own.

Though not difficult to keep straight, the story goes in too many directions and some introductions cannot be followed through on, such as Sassi’s beleaguered gay son Yacine (Akim Isker) and rather shadowy nice-guy Samir (Jalil Naciri), who perhaps is Goucem’s future. Its crisis precipitated by the heroine’s unthinking theft of a gun, the film plays against images of Algiers la Blanche. This White City is subtly, memorably captured, its streets and entrances, interior arches within arches, elegance coexistent with peeling walls and squalor, highway-fronting cemeteries, stone steps, the upper hills brooding over downtown and its oceanfront, capped by a flooded hospital basement which doubles as a morgue.

Success comes only to mother Papicha, now star singer in idolizing M. Farès’ (Serge Avedikian) Le Rouge Gorge club, but she, too, realizes how far there is still to go. “I dedicate this,” she introduces a number, “to unhappy women.”

(Released by Les Films du Losange; not rated by MPAA.)

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