VIVA LALDJERIE (Nadir Moknèche, 2004)

From Algeria, France, Belgium, writer-director Nadir Moknèche’s Viva LaldjérieLong Live Algeria—encapsulates its theme in a clunkish symbol: in Algiers, the planned transformation of a shut-down cabaret, the Copacabana, into a mosque. Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise, destroying people’s lives when it isn’t taking people’s lives. This is hard on all those with the least bit of vulnerability or humanity, but it is especially hard on women.
     Moknèche’s film is about three such women in Algiers. Goucem, who is in her twenties, works as a clerk in a photography shop. For three years she has had an affair with a surgeon who has promised to leave wife and children for her. Goucem has already had two abortions—a reflection of the choices for modern women that Goucem has taken for granted. Goucem shares a hotel apartment with her mother, Papicha (Biyouna, wonderful), a grief-stricken widow and a former dancer and singer at the Copacabana. The woman is odd and endearing—a real character, who like her daughter reflects a more tolerant Algerian time. Goucem and Papicha’s neighbor in the hotel, Fifi, is a working prostitute. She is the one who pays the ultimate price for the slide into fanaticism and social intolerance currently underway. Even the surgeon’s closeted gay son escapes with his life.
     Except for that central symbol, which is blatant and reductive (although part of the machinery of the plot as well), and one other gratuitous touch, this is an excellent film, relaxed, assured, engrossing, unsentimental, compassionate, moving. It is to be commended for resisting bug-eyed melodrama; Moknèche sets a priority on tact and taste. His other mistake is minor: Papicha’s declaration that her husband “died of disgust.” We get it! We don’t need such prodding in order to “get it.”

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