Dir/scr: Amor Hakkar. Fr-Alg. 2007. 80mins.
Shot in the Aures mountains, one of the more remote and arid regions of Algeria, The Yellow House is a worthy and particularly authentic representative of North African cinema that at the least can expect an extended list of festival. Refraining from any political statements or exploration of deeply human issues, Amor Hakkar's second feature film reads very much like a mournful version of David Lynch's The Straight Story, a road movie about a peasant riding his makeshift motorised tricycle all the way from his hovel in the mountains to the city morgue in order to retrieve his son's body.
Though cinematically pretty rudimentary, its intentions are admirable, and the picture's attempt to portray the profound distress of a simple family faced with an unexpected death, is moving enough to elicit a certain degree of leniency for its other shortcomings. Specialised distributors dealing with developing cinema should definitely take a look.
Mouloud (played by the director, in the film's best calibrated performance), a Berber peasant, lives in an isolated mountain hut with his wife and three daughters. He is informed by the police that his older son, Belkacem, has been killed in an accident while serving as a soldier in a nearby town, and that he is expected to go there and retrieve of the body.
For Mouloud's primitive Lambretta-drawn tricycle, it is a long and arduous trip, taking all day and all night, during the course of which he meets only helpful people, willing to lend a hand whenever necessary, once they hear the reason for his journey. They include a policeman who allows him to go on into the night, although his Lambretta has no lights; a taxi driver in town who offers to show him the way for free; and a attendant who lets him in before opening hours and later allows him to avoid some of the stricter red tape.
After the burial, the last part of the film focuses on the grief of the family. Fatima (Ait-Ali), the disconsolate mother, will not come out of the house and will not eat, driving Mouloud, assisted by his oldest daughter, Aya (Hamdi), to look for anything that might restore her faith in life.
They try this by painting their home yellow, an old fashioned remedy recommend by some people, as well as breaking down bureaucratic inertia enough to allow their home to be connected to electricity.
Conceptually, there is much to praise in Hakkar's work, valiantly assisted by cinematographer Nicolas Roche's contribution in rendering the condition of the characters and the place they live in. The Aures Mountains look as spectacular and as barren as their reputation, while the sound of the Berber language spoken throughout, and the music of the region used for the soundtrack, add to the palpably real feeling of an area which is almost, if not entirely, virgin for movie cameras.
Of course, it is easy to sympathise with the notion that a mutual sense of compassion unites all of these people in the face of death, a common denominator that bridges between people of every social standing and denomination.
Yet it is difficult not to notice several awkward scenes, like the father loudly banging his son's coffin down the stairs of the morgue, which nobody seems to notice, and then refraining to turn on the tricycle's motor so as not to make a noise.
While casting locals makes perfect sense, there is a general stiffness in all their performances that testifies not only to their lack of experience, which is normal, but also a distinct insecurity and absence of a firm directorial hand. It makes for a film that is shot correctly in the most conventional manner but is never particularly original nor exciting.
There is also the uniformly pleasant, ingratiating nature of almost everybody in the film, which after a while seems a bit too good to be true. It reaches its climax when a high-placed state prefect immediately responds to Mouloud and Fatima's pleas and picks up the proverbial phone to set the bureaucratic machine in motion.
The director claims he had similar experiences when he brought his father's corpse back from France to be buried at home - but what may be true for one case is rarely fit to be generalised for all.