North African exiles in Marseilles search for their future in this decade-spanning drama from Saïd Hamich Benlarbi

'Across The Sea'

Source: Barney Production - Mont Fleuri Production - Tarantula

‘Across The Sea’

Dir: Saïd Hamich Benlarbi. France/Morocco/Belgium/Qatar. 2024. 112 mins.

Exile and the friction between dreams and reality are the touchstones for Saïd Hamich Benlarbi’s Across The Sea which, like his previous film Return To Bollene, highlights the experiences of the north-west African community in France. There are picaresque and romance elements to this colourful and often poignant decade-spanning tale of a Moroccan migrant’s life in Marseille, although the producer-turned-director also leans too heavily on soap opera-style coincidences in places.

Ambitious work with a novelistic sweep

The Jokers Films will distribute Across The Sea in France after its debut in the Special Screenings section of Cannes Un Certain Regard and festival appearances further afield may follow for this ambitious work with a novelistic sweep. While its characters and plotting might be uneven in places, its heart never misses a beat.

Beginning in 1990, Nour (Ayoub Gretaa, making his film debut after several television roles) is still in his late twenties with the hopefulness of youth on his side. We see him making ends meet with a gang of fellow illegal emigres via a petty criminal operation. Benlarbi generates the sense of a group who find strength in their common roots, emphasised by the rhythmic rai music which accompanies the celebratory events that pepper the film. This vibrancy is further enhanced by the generally warm colour palette, periodically giving way to cooler blues, but always captured in painterly fashion by cinematographer Tom Harari.

The time period, in an era before the ubiquity of mobile phones, brings home the acute sense of disconnection caused by migration. The past is truly a foreign country, especially when your mum doesn’t want to speak to you. This distance from ‘home’ also makes the goal of citizenship even more compelling, evidenced by one of Nour’s crew choosing a marriage of convenience over his true love.

When a character talks about developments being due “to fate” it indicates Benlarbi’s approach, which is to show how Nour is buffeted by those around him until he finally makes peace with himself. The writer/director’s attempts to balance realism with plot contrivances that could have sprung from a Dickensian fable lead to the drama being rather overstuffed in terms of characters and events, but there’s no doubt it keeps you guessing as to what might happen next.

The major twist of fate is Nour’s encounter with cop Serge (Grégoire Colin) after his gang is busted. Although this initially seems like a one-off, they cross paths again, leading the older man and his wife Noémie (Anna Mouglais) taking Nour under their wing. The complex relationship that develops between the pair, who are in an open marriage, and Nour drives the rest of the film, even as fate repeatedly intervenes.

Although Nour remains the film’s lynchpin, Benlarbi also keeps one eye on the wider ensemble of his friends, weaving together several strands of plotting so that we’re able to see the pattern of exile and acceptance mirrored in different ways elsewhere. The tension between Nour’s own hopes for the future and his attachment to his past come sharply into focus as he returns to his homeland and discovers a different road he didn’t even realise he could have travelled.

Gretaa is the film’s ace. He pitches Nour’s character perfectly as he mentally migrates from his youthful naivety to something much more profound, realising the importance of embracing life for what it is rather than what it might have been or could be. Mouglais, too, impressively articulates the emotional complexity of her character as Noémie’s desires come increasingly to the fore. 

Production companies: Barney Production

International sales: Indie Sales,

Producers: Sophie Penson, Joseph Rouschop, Saïd Hamich Benlarbi

Screenplay: Saïd Hamich Benlarbi

Cinematography: Tom Harari

Production design: Teresa Hurtado Escobar

Editing: Lilian Corbeille

Music: P.R2B

Main cast: Ayoub Gretaa, Anna Mouglalis, Grégoire Colin, Omar Boulakirba, Rym Foglia, Ali Mehdi Moulai, Sarah Henochsberg