January 13th, 2005 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Written & Directed By Tony Gatlif

Starring Romain Duris, Lubna Azabal.

As the TV show said, ‘there are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.’

The same could be said for Europe. Considering that while Australia and the US were still populated by indigents who hadn’t changed their way of life since prehistory, the warring tribes of Europe had settled themselves into more or less their current form more than five hundred years ago.

And part of that tapestry of stories is the African nationalities that became mixed in France’s bloodline after its bloody colonisation of vast swathes of North Africa. After a brutal and violent second half of the 20th century, most Algerians are flooding north even today.

Only two, it seems — hero Zano and girlfriend Naima — are going in the opposite direction. Both of Arabic blood, they decide on an unexplained and slightly fairytale-like whim to travel to Algiers to see the home of Zano’s childhood.

What ensues is an experience in Gatlif’s filmmaking style as much as a movie as the duo travel overland by stowing away on trains and ships or even walking.

They spend a decadent few hours in Seville, cross the Mediterranean and land on Africa’s troubled northern shores, bombed out by years of war and as much ruin as their lost identities.

If you only see Hollywood movies, expect a very different trip from the norm. Go and see it for a very different experience where tight plotting and narrative takes something of a back seat to a languid, languorous style and the idea of a trip rather than the finer points of the trip itself.

And in a way, that’s what Exils is, a modern day, culturally sensitive version of Easy Rider, two similarly slack lost souls searching for the heart of their country and people by moving through it off the cuff and soaking up the experience.

It’s hard to stick with at times — Gatlif takes the time to tell you the story partly through extended musical sequences that he considers essential to the storytelling but which at times feel more like a World Music pay TV channel.

Gatlif and his characters also seem to be telling a story that’s part allegory. Zano tells his girlfriend ‘let’s go to Algeria’, she bursts out laughing and suddenly they’re on their way going — obviously with no jobs, ties or responsibilities of any sort. It gives the film a partly surreal feel and you’re never sure what to take on face value.

It’s also very episodic, with nothing seeming to fit together very comfortably. Naima acts so weirdly at times it’s clear Gatlif’s caught up in the ‘most interesting character’ race, for reasons often never explained, and in sequences that have nothing to do with advancing the tale.

But we certainly need more movies from European directors who haven’t grown up in the Hollywood hills and graduated from TV commercial or sitcom work. We need more stories that are away from the narrow American corporate film industry frequency to see what’s possible with the art of cinema, and while Exils isn’t the most standout example, it’s a bazaar of rich tastes and textures.

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