A domestic melodrama with an interesting historical background,* Inch’Allah Dimanche is the first nondocumentary by Algerian-born Yamina Benguigui. It explores such intriguing issues as cultural dislocation and cultural collision but is too awash in sentimental theatrics to be of serious value. At Toronto, however, they took the whole thing very seriously, according the film their International Critics’ Prize “[f]or its sensitivity and fresh humour in dealing with the conditions of Third World women, daily racism, and clashes between cultures.” Somewhere amidst the four or five occasions on which Ahmed resoundingly smacks up Zouina, his wife, I missed the humor. The movie does pluck out of thin air a happy ending, however.
Following World War II, France began recruiting male workers from North Africa while barring family members and thus further isolating the men in an unfamiliar land. For nearly three decades this policy continued, but in 1974 President Jacques Chirac instituted a new policy, “family reunion,” which invited wives and children to join their husbands and fathers in a curious effort to stem immigration by exhausting existing quotas. Benguigui’s film focuses on an Algerian family. Zouina, along with her three children and a mother-in-law from hell, reunites after ten years with Ahmed in provincial Northern France. Ahmed apparently has another wife—legally, back home, he is entitled to four wives—but for the time being the other one remains in Algeria. We never once see Ahmed at work and, unless I missed it in the subtitles, we aren’t told just what he does for a living. What an odd omission. (Oh, we do see him, though, fumbling with a guitar at home.)
Ahmed is too worried about fitting into his adopted Christian homeland to be the least bit tender toward his wife, although he treats Aïcha, his mother, who browbeats his wife incessantly, as though she were the Queen of Sheba. As far as I can tell, he in no way practices his Muslim faith. Moreover, he is determined to reassert his authority over Zouina, perhaps to restore some part of the cultural continuity and sense of control he feels he has forfeited by having been cast adrift in a foreign space. Zouina receives the first of her several multiple smack-ups when, defending their children against a cruel neighbor, she attracts police attention—goaded by his mother, in Ahmed’s eyes, a disgrace. Another “chastisement” ensues when Aïcha rats out Zouina because her daughter-in-law has been reading a French fashion magazine and trying on lipstick. Ahmed’s are the hands that keep on giving.
A neighbor or two treat Zouina kindly, but she is lost in the village, whose customs she gets little chance to adapt to because Ahmed forbids her to leave their apartment—well, his apartment—except to purchase bread and milk at the local grocery store. When he goes out, Ahmed takes his mother, not his wife. When Zouina learns there is another Algerian family in the area, she sneaks out with the children to try to find what she hopes will be welcoming company, a spot of home. After a number of attempts Zouina finally locates the other young Algerian woman, who is too afraid of being beaten by her spouse to allow Zouina into her life. But all is not lost, because a handsome young bus driver who has had his eye on her throughout the film empties his bus so he can blissfully chat with Zouina. Back home, genuinely worried about his wife’s disappearance, Ahmed finally tells his mother to shut up and behaves decently toward Zouina for the first time. Frankly, I think she should have stayed on the bus.
Benguigui trucks in visual clichés, and her “big scene” of Zouina’s stolen jaunt of freedom pales beside the comparable passage in the Iranian film The Sealed Soil (1977), which Marva Nabili handles with such delicate poignancy and precision. Delicacy of any kind is not in Benguigui’s vocabulary.
I found the film close to ridiculous and Fejria Deliba (best actress, Bordeaux International Festival of Women in Cinema), who plays Zouina, unsubtle and wearying in the extreme. Jalil Lespert, the conspicuously actorish star of Laurent Cantet’s otherwise nonprofessionally cast Human Resources (1999), plays the bus driver. He is helped by having, this time, a simpler role to play.
* Benguigui covers the same material, through interviews of North African immigrants to France and their descendants, in her 1997 documentary Mémoires d’immigrés, l’héritage maghrébin.