Saturday, March 23, 2013

ND/NF ’13: Rengaine

Technically, Sabrina and Dorcy’s families both came from the same continent.  Yet, for all practical purposes, they are a universe apart.  The couple intends to marry just the same, whether or not their families approve in Rachid Djaïdani’s surprisingly witty Rengaine (a.k.a. Hold Back, trailer here), which screens tomorrow during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The son of Christian Africans, Dorcy is a struggling actor.  Frankly, he does not seem to be very good at it, but at least he is trying.  Sabrina has fallen in love with him nonetheless, but her forty—that’s right four-zero—Algerian immigrant brothers do not approve. At least that is true of the eldest, Slimane, who presumes to speak for the rest of his siblings. 

Alarmed by Sabrina’s romantic transgression, Slimane proceeds to mobilize his brothers, but to their credit, some think he is just being a controlling jerk.  However, probably a good two thirds are either inclined to agree with him or can be easily cowed by the self-appointed guardian of traditional Muslim values.  Frankly, most of the latter are rather sketchy characters who might have stepped out of Le Pen’s campaign commercials.  In contrast, the brothers who are more integrated into French society argue Slimane should mind his own business—and he has plenty to mind.  Ironically the elder brother is engaged in his own romantic relationship with an alternative cabaret singer, who happens to be Jewish.

Filmed over a nine year stretch, the not quite eighty minute Rengaine was definitely a labor of for French Algerian-Sudanese novelist Djaïdani, who clearly identifies with his lead characters and their various situations.  The film has a whole lot of rough edges, yet that really is a large part of its charm.  While some bits amount to little more than false starts, other scenes are wickedly droll and resound with the ring of truth.

As Dorcy, Stéphane Soo Mongo (whose credits include an episode of The Sopranos) is quite convincing as a terrible actor, which actually constitutes a nice bit of acting.  He also gets most of the film’s laughs with his satirical misadventures in Parisian hipsterdom.  Sabrina Hamida effectively expresses her namesake’s frustrations and outrages, but it is not as meaty a role as that of her two primary male co-stars.  Indeed, Slimane Dazi (another of the cast’s few established professionals, recognizable from films like Free Men and A Prophet) really lowers the boom as Brother Slimane.  Memorably world weary and conflicted, he takes the film to some dark places, including a riveting confrontation with the final brother.

Rengaine is short and messy, but unusually energetic.  It is also unflinchingly honest depicting the various forms of racism and intolerance within the immigrant Algerian Muslim community.  Djaiani does not let Dorcy’s family off the hook either, but the Slimane’s hypocritical freakout is the film’s dramatic driver.  Featuring a knock-out performance from Dazi and a stylish and stylistically diverse soundtrack, Rengaine is adventurous but well satisfying art cinema.  Recommended for French film patrons, it screens this Sunday (3/24) at MoMA.