ABOUNA (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 2002)

A crowd-pleasing piece of tripe, less from Chad than from France, Abouna is an African film by way of fabricated myth. Two brothers, 15-year-old Tahir and 8-year-old Amine, search for their father, who, their mother discovers one day, has abandoned them. Now the lost mother bears some ancient resonance; the lost brother, Romantic resonance. But the lost father? We’re in sentimental territory here, and writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s discreet shot of the deadbeat dad himself glancing into the camera as he crosses the desert in flight is insufficient to counter the fatuousness of the premise. One father more or less doesn’t make a dimestore’s worth of difference. Cynically and noxiously, Haroun must have realized this himself and thus takes the life of one of the boys and, as the film ends, leaves the mother in a precarious state of health. Good grief!
     The title, Abouna, translates as “Our father,” and refers to God as well as Dad. Double good grief! We are supposed to embrace the pathetic notion that wartorn Chad has suffered this loss of fathers and that our pair of semi-orphaned brothers has suffered, symbolically, the human consequences. Or have the boys humanly suffered the symbolical consequences? It hardly matters. This is one of the least convincing films I’ve seen.
     Haroun is from Chad but was educated in Paris. Doubtless he felt he had lassoed Great Significance by linking his absent father to God. What a fool! The connection this material needed to work is not between Dad and God but between him and his sons. A perpetual male crisis promulgated by war: Isn’t that what Haroun should have been after? Haroun is too cleverly French for his own good. He should have guillotined his pretentiousness before it took hold.
     A lot of his material is suggestive, full of promise. The boys find themselves at the Chad-Cameroon border. They must cross a momentous bridge in order to continue their search. But, throughout, symbolism asserts itself a little too strongly; everything becomes schematic—everything human(e) evaporates.
     The boys’ mother declares their father “irresponsible” when they ask her why he left. She will not be similarly so; ironically depriving them of all parental guidance, she ships the boys off to a strict fundamentalist school, where Amine is teased for not being able to swim. In a Most Meaningful Moment, Amine gently helps birth a grasshopper. Needless to say, Amine, who is asthmatic, is the brother who will die.
     Haroun had better clutch his brace of international prizes, because his film vanishes in one’s sight even as one watches it. He has strung symbols as others string pearls.

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