Serious in intent, but melodramatic in style, the patriotic historical saga “Heliopolis” directed by Djaffar Gacem neatly uses the alliances of a fictional Muslim family to explicate events leading up to the brutal killings of indigenous Algerian civilians and the summary execution of native political leaders by French settler militias and soldiers in 1945. Algeria’s submission for the international feature Oscar is highly effective in showing the tensions between those who believed indigenous Algerians and French colonists would someday be treated equally under the French flag and those who pushed for the country’s independence. It also clearly presents the growing strain between the colonized and the colonists, albeit with a lot less subtlety.
In 1940, the Muslim Zenati family operates a successful wheat farming estate in Heliopolis that is the envy of the French colonial farmers in the Guelma district. Wary patriarch Mokdad (well played by Aziz Boukerouni, the film’s most nuanced performer), a widower and WWI French army veteran, dresses in Western clothes, speaks French at home and sends his son Mafoud (Mehdi Ramdani) to an elite secondary school in Algiers. He’s progressive, but not completely assimilated; he keeps his injured daughter Nedjma (Souhila Mallem) close by his side. Like his tribal chief father before him, Mokdad is seen as a leader by the indigenous community while at the same time, a person on whom the French rely for loyalty and keeping the peace. Gacem and co-writers Salah Edinne Chihani and Kahina Mohamed Oussaid emphasize the costs of this balancing act for Mokdad and Boukerouni’s dignified performance makes the struggle clear without overplaying it.
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Mahfoud, on the other hand, is naive and idealistic and unable to shrug off the insults of the French, whether coded or direct. The sole Arab graduate of his Algiers lycée and a top student, he bears a grudge for not being allowed to enter the French-run polytechnic because of his ethnicity. The rejection definitely primes him to the nationalist stirrings of a slightly older group of Muslim elites and businessmen, such as family friend Sadek (Fodil Assoul), who belong to the Algerian People’s Party (PPA). Inspired by their underground newspapers and later, Ferhat Abbas’s provocative Manifesto of the Algerian People, Mahfoud eventually becomes part of their local leadership circle.
Mokdad and Mahfoud fall out irrevocably in 1943, after the younger man witnesses his father insulated and manipulated by some sneering French colonists (Alexis Rangheard, Jacques Serres, so blatantly villainous that they lack only mustaches to twirl) into bankrolling the revived Guelma horse race. While Mokdad considers himself to be patiently playing a long game, Mafoud sees only submission to the French. He leaves home to manage Sadek’s coffeehouse and join the ever-more-bold independence plotters, who are now organizing the illiterate rural farmworkers and young Muslim scouts into political activism as friends of the manifesto.
When Mokdad’s employee Bachir (Mourad Oudjit) enters the race as the sole Muslim rider, the stage is set for an explosive situation of the type Mokdad most wants to avoid and that members of the PPA decide to exploit for their advantage. Bachir, who wants nothing more than to continue grooming Mokdad’s horses and admire Nedjma from afar, suffers the most immediate backlash. But under Gacem’s broad strokes direction, viewers can practically see a thought bubble above the angry colonists’ heads that says, “Uppity natives. How can we put them in their place?”
That moment comes soon enough. As the settlers feel increasingly threatened by the indigenous political activity, they decide to revive their local militia. They are encouraged by sub-prefect André Achiary (Vincent De Bouard), an actual historical character, who provides them with arms and protection. Tensions boil over on May 8, 1945, as French parades to celebrate the Allied Victory turn into a showdown with peaceful indigenous activists in the Sétif and Guelma regions.
Gacem, making his feature debut here, is best known as a director of telefilms and darkly comic series that expose the ills of Algerian society. With “Heliopolis” designed to evoke the maximum emotional impact on the domestic audience, his overt, soap opera-style direction and mostly nasty French characters serve the purpose, but may seem clichéd and over-the-top on the world stage. Nevertheless, international viewers will share the locals’ outrage over the hypocrisies, injustices and barbarities of the colonial period exposed here.
Also among the film’s weaker points is a sub-plot insinuating class-defying romantic feelings between Nedjma and Bachir, which is barely developed. It feels like an excuse to give well-known Algerian sitcom actress Mallem more to do in a narrative that mostly marginalizes the female characters.
On the tech front, the handsome Cinemascope camerawork by Ugo Lopinto provides appropriate sweep, while realistic production design by Moncef Hakouna and convincing costumes by Jean Marc Mirete evoke the era. The stunning period cars are a real find.
Interestingly, “Heliopolis” ends at the point at which Algeria’s last international feature nomination, “Outside The Law” (2010), directed by Rachid Bouchareb, begins. Both films also boast a score from composer Armand Amar.
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