If Alexandre Arcady isn't exactly the most gifted French director of his generation, he still deserves the credit of shining the first spotlights on the 'Black Feet' community . If you don't know what this term means, either you're not French or not familiar with the aftermath of the Algerian war for independence.
The derogatory expression refers to the community of French citizens born in Algeria and pushed into a massive exodus once the independence obtained. The vast majority were of Jewish persuasion, some even had their Ancestors living in the region for far longer than Muslims with Arab origins but nevertheless they were considered French citizens and paid the price of their attachment (or detachment depending on the perspective) though an offer from the independent militia that they couldn't refuse: the luggage or the coffin.
I recall from many documentaries the emotional heartbreak induced by this blackmail, one of the emblematic figures of the community, singer Enrico Macias his 'uncle', actually his wife's father and mentor and member of the Algerian orchestra, killed at broad daylight and that murder triggered the community to leave France. That's for the context and a bit of knowledge is crucial to understand why Arcady who grew up in Algeria, felt the need to make a film, the first of its kind, to recall the tragedy of a collective uprooting less than two decades earlier.
And so we follow the Narboni family, living in Tadjira, Algeria. The father, named Albert, is a larger-than-life grocery shop owner whom we meet in 1945, proudly announcing the birth of his son Paulo and immediately writing 'Narboni and son' in the sign, clearly the man sees no future outside Algeria. The mother is Marguerite (Marthe Villalonga),a noisy and nosy housewife who enjoys gossiping with the neighbors and commanding the Arab maid. And Paulo, played by Patrick Bruel, is the shy teen whose puberty coincided with the climax of the war.
The first act of the film -more than half of an hour- recollects the memories of the Golden Age through a series of little vignettes that might strike as too anecdotal and lighthearted given the gravity of the subject. I think they all work to the degree that we accept the film doesn't want to inject pathos in the first story about the community. The problem is that the parents are so loquacious that the son is given a chance to shine on his own, dominated by two strong personalities and the 'eloquent' narration from the voice of Bruel doesn't hit the right chord. An adult movie or the kid talking with his own language would have worked better.
It's a common device for nostalgic movies to use an adult narrator, think of "A Christmas Story" for instance. Adult voices provide the necessary perspective that give the flashback their touch of endearment. "My Father's Glory" and "My Mother's Castle" were true childhood films but the adult voice-over allowed us to examine the youth in the way it shaped the character's adulthood. Another film like "Mayrig" about the Armenian community featured the other extreme with a lot of lyrical poetry in Richard Berri's memory recollection. In "The Kick of Sirocco", it's still the voice of young Bruel and somewhat it doesn't match.
I guess the approach of Arcady was to give a personal touch and only in the unfolding of events followed from the standpoint of the Narboni family, I read the original material was much darker and it was after reading the novel from Daniel De Jean-Hermont that Arcady felt he could tell the same story without too much pathos. The result is a film that kind of exaggerate the traits commonly associated with the Black Feet community but through the over-the-top performances of Hanin and Villalonga, we rather accept the film as a drama-comedy.
Hanin, who left the world in 2015, had the mimics of another Province icon Raimu with the singing accent of Fernandel as if he was born in the casbah and his presence phagocytes every other character around. Villalonga in her performance established that she was born to play possessive Jewish mothers with every situation leading to hysteria. And between these two Paulo tries to live a normal adolescence, there's even the beginning of a little romance but cut off brutally by the mother's intrusion. That Paulo never figures out what went wrong and end up disappointed by the film's Parisian is one of the little things that left me dissatisfied.
There's another subplot involving a French businessman who seems to grow a liking in Albert, he's played by Michel Auclair but that subplot of the real estate scam is handled like a last-minute addition to the plot that could only be solved with a half-baked twist involving a gun. I'm not sure the film even needed such a subplot. Maybe Arcady should have stuck to the 'vignette' approach à la Fellini's "Amarcord" and provide here and there a few moments of emotions.
And there were such moments, the interaction with the Algerian baggage-handler in Marseilles train station was like the film's soul imploding in two minutes of greatness, Albert is asked why he left Algeria, then throws a tantrum against the Arab blaming him for their downfall and asking him to leave France, that it ended with Marguerite giving him a generous tip sealed a sort of tacit and symbolic reconciliation with the same resonance as Hanin being buried in his homeland: Algeria. Such moments were needed but Arcady trusted his actors more than his material and yet from these flaws emerged a little gem (little underlined).
So what's left are some tenderly poignant moments, an odd detail involving a coffin being taken out from the very building they settled downed in, the whole atmosphere of the early 60s, and the idea of the canned couscous from cousin Jacob (Lucien Kavayah) which strikes as a clever metaphor for the whole Narboni journey...
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The "pieds-noir" (black-feet) were Algerians of French heritage who were forced to return to France in 1962, when Algeria became independent. In the first part of this film, adapted from a novel by Daniel Saint-Hamon, the Narbonis run a little grocery in Algeria and keep their noses out of politics entirely. They are content to mind their own business, in the hopes that others will be equally sensible. Thus, they are bewildered when, in 1962, they are forced to leave what has by now become their native land for the strange country of France. In the second half of the film, their adjustment to life in France is aided by the same stick-to-business attitudes which earlier gave them difficulty. Nonetheless, they experience a number of setbacks, as when a slick Parisian (Michel Auclair) tries to talk them into going into business with him.
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