Dir/scr: Tony Gatlif.France. 2004. 103mins
Director Tony Gatlif'syearning to return to the land of his childhood is the guiding motivationbehind Exiles, a polished road movie journey of self-discovery thattakes place between France and Algeria. Unfortunately, it is the local colour,vibrant locations and use of music that linger in the memory rather the banaland predictable revelations that await two lovers in search of their culturalidentity and family roots.
Many will feel that the filmhas nothing original to say and at Cannes it could only suffer in comparisonwith its close proximity to the Walter Salles road movie Motorcycle Diaries,which is more accomplished and meaningful on every level. A career on the filmfestival circuit and some modest theatrical interest could still result fromits competition exposure, especially in those territories where Gatliff, whowon best director, has already carved himself a niche.
Born in Algeria in 1948, thedirector of Gadjo Dilo (1998) and Vengo (2000) fled the countryin the 1960s and did not return for over 40 years. Zano (Duris) and Naima(Azabal) are symbols of what he terms the children of the Diaspora, a youngergeneration not entirely at ease with their European-ness and curious about thepart of them that has been shaped and formed by a different culture.
One day Zano simply asksNaima if she would like to go to Algeria and they set off by train, ferry andfoot on a journey that finds them constantly heading in the opposite directionfrom those Algerian refugees seeking the promise of a better life in Paris orAmsterdam.
Travelling through France,Andalucia, Morocco and, finally, Algeria, the couple bicker and bond, earn somemoney by picking fruit, steal lifts and encounter a good deal of hospitality andwarmth among the gypsy families, illegal immigrants and Algerians they meetalong the way.
There is a great interest inNaima as people question why she does not speak Arabic, wonder if she might beMuslim and cannot comprehend why she initially refuses to cover herself up as asign of respect. The questions leave her with a burning sense of being dividedbetween two cultures.
"I feel like a strangereverywhere," she claims, and dialogue like that is one of the problems of afilm that feels the need to spell everything out, yet which never presents uswith a fully developed sense of who these characters are. Zano is an orphan whosurvived a fire that took the lives of his parents. "Music is my religion," hepompously replies to one question.
In Algeria, the couplewitness the devastation of the earthquake that rocked the country and theyfinally connect with their roots in a Sufi spiritual ceremony in which they areencouraged to escape their fears and inhibitions by achieving a state oftranscendence.
Taking a documentary-likeapproach to shooting on the streets of Seville and near the earthquake ruins inAlgiers, the film conveys a real sense of place as a backdrop to the story.There is a warm feel to the scenes with immigrants from Africa, Morocco and Algeria,and Gatlif makes extensive use of the music he has helped to compose, clearlybelieving that music expresses the soul of a country - whether its the staccatobeat of a flamenco dance in Seville or the intense, repetitive Sufi ceremonywhich is observed at excessive lengthduring the climax of the film.
All these elements are quiteinteresting in themselves but they are not enough to counteract the sketchy,slightly half-hearted fictional drama that they are asked to support. Onesuspects that Gatliff should have been bold enough to just take the leap ofmaking the film much more personal and creating a documentary about his ownlong voyage home.
In Algiers, Zano visits thefamily home that was abandoned 40 years earlier and discovers (very conveniently)that the same people have been living there ever since.
Pictures of his grandfatherand grandmother still adorn the walls and elderly sisters present him with atin box full of family photos. It is a touching moment, undermined by the factthat we really do not know who Zano is. How much more moving it would have beento discover Gatlif's own emotions on returning to the memories of his past.
Prod co: Princes Films
Int'l sales: Flach Pyramide Int'l
Prods: Tony Gatlif, LaurentDusothoit
Cine: Celine Bozon
Prod des: Brigitte Brassart
Ed: Monique Dartonne
Music: Tony Gatlif, DelphineMantoulet
Main cast: Romain Duris, LubnaAzabal, Leila Makhlouf, Habib Cheik, Zouhir Gacem