Dir: Rachid Hami. France/Taipei. 2022. 113 min.
There’s an intensely autobiographical backdrop to Rachid Hami’s serious drama about heartbreak, family and honour, which sees him return to the Venice Film Festival in the Orizzonti side section after his previous film, Orchestra classscreened out of competition in 2017. The actor-turned-screenwriter/director’s own brother, Jallal, died in a similar hazing ritual during his training at the Saint-Cyr Military Academy to the one that set off the trajectory of For my countrycausing personal and political ripples that rippled through the film.
The tenor of the film tends towards the austere
Hami and his co-screenwriter Ollivier Pourriol take a naturally dark approach to the story, which travels from France to Algeria and Taiwanese Taipei across three different time periods and multiple languages. But the film is so sprawling that its slow-burning emotions often lose much of their heat. After Venice, For my country is likely to have the most appeal at other festivals, while the presence of stars such as Lubna Azabal (Fires), Shain Boumedine (Mektoub, my love) and Karim Leklou (The world belongs to you) can also help it attract the attention of distributors in French-speaking countries.
Boumedine plays young idealist Aissa, whom we meet moments before the middle-of-the-night “barking” – a hazing ritual that resembles an extreme army exercise – leads to his death. As his mother (Azabal), his older brother Ismael (Leklou) and their extended family come to grips with the authorities over his right to be buried in a military cemetery, despite not being killed in combat, the situation is further complicated by the reappearance of the men’s estranged father (Samir Guesmi).
This latest turn of events leads Ismael to reflect on two painful episodes from his past: a child surrounding the circumstances in which his mother took them from Algeria, and a second which sees him paying a restless visit to his brother in Taipei, where the young man was studying, two years before his death.
Hami went to great lengths, not only in terms of mixing the political and the personal, but also the interplay between in-the-moment action and flashbacks. As a result, he struggles to find a balance. Often it moves us like an idea or emotion that seems to be just beginning – like the tensions between Ishmael and his father, or the complex machinations over the burial that see the family gain an unlikely ally.
The measured approach, not only in terms of story but also of Jérôme Almeras’s camera (In the House, Human capital), which seems quite distant throughout, also means that the tenor of the film tends to be austere. This is not helped by times in Taipei where English is used as the common language, causing the sentiments expressed to lack natural cadence.
The director’s strength is in his portrayal of the servant, and the way he weaves the family’s faith into the film helps ground his story in solid reality. The actors also deserve applause for bringing extra intensity to the scenes when needed, especially Azabal, who lets the mother’s grief show through her physical reaction as much as the script. Given how invigorating the scenes are when the director allows a little more energy — a show of rebellion against the boy’s childhood father, a stopover at a club, or a moment of shared connection between the brothers as they play air hockey. — it’s just a shame he doesn’t do it more often.
Production companies: Mizar Films, Ma Studios
International sales: mk2 films, [email protected]
Producers: Nicolas Mauvernay, Amy Ma, Tien-Tsung Ma
Screenplay: Rachid Hami, Ollivier Pourriol
Director of photography: Jérôme Almeras
Production design: Yann Mégard
Editing: Joelle Hache
Music: Dan Levy
Main cast: Karim Leklou, Shain Boumedine, Lubna Azabal, Samir Guesmi, Laurent Lafitte, Vivian Sung