Category Archives: Film Reviews

Film Review – Film Review: Joyeux Nöel [Merry Christmas] directed by Christian Carion (2005)

I enjoyed the fact that Joyeux Nöel is trilingual.
Recently, I had the ultimate pleasure of watching “Joyeux Nöel” [MERRY CHRISTMAS], nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards, on cable. Not a lover of war movies at all, I was more than pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. This was perhaps because it possessed many, if not all, of the traits that impress me in a movie. It is unusual that I would go as far as to consider viewing the film another time since I find that the theme of war in films is generally one of the most unpleasant.

However, Joyeux Nöel contains enough goodwill and comedy to ease the tension associated with the subject material and to maintain a positive tone throughout the film. I enjoyed the fact that Joyeux Nöel is trilingual. Music, custom, scenery, costumes and the English, French and German languages spoken throughout the film all depict the three respective cultures of the soldiers fighting in the war. In addition, the subtitles are written in British English and this also provides a refreshing treat! Even religion has its place as Father Palmer, the Anglican priest, presides over a service during which music plays a key role in the film with heart warming singing by Nikolaus Sprink and Anna Sorensen. The soldiers sing popular songs of their countries amidst the sound of the bagpipe and harmonica.

The film provides an education in history since it is based on a true story. The director was inspired when he discovered a book entitled “Battles of Flanders and Artois 1914-1918” written by Yves Buffetaut that covers the sequence of events surrounding World War I that broke out in the summer of 1914 and culminated that same Christmas Eve when the war became more deadly and the soldiers decided to call a truce for Christmas.

For a brief moment, the viewer is able to tune out the horrors of war or at least cope. I experienced a great deal of mirth while watching the soldiers leave their rifles in their trenches. Enemies shake each other’s hands; they exchange cigarettes, champagne and chocolate and wish each other “Merry Christmas.” I found myself laughing out loud several times during the film and I was filled with strong feelings of optimism to see the soldiers of the three different nationalities sharing moments of peace and friendship.

On Christmas Day, the officers enjoy coffee together, bury their dead and challenge each other to a football match and even when they shelter each other during artillery barrages on both sides, they are aware that reality is yet to be faced. The soldiers must later face their superiors as they return to their own trenches. When news of the fraternization across lines leaks out, the commanders worry that it could hamper the war effort, and take extreme measures to put a stop to the fragile peace. The troops are replaced because they have been tainted by the experience.

I was shocked when Father Palmer is harshly criticized by his bishop who remonstrates with him quoting the scripture that Jesus “did not come to bring peace but a sword.” The bishop later tells the new recruits that they are in a crusade, a holy war for freedom. Father Palmer removes his cross and rejects the views that are so inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.

Director Christian Carion stated that “the film has more than a European dimension for me. It has a humanistic dimension. In my opinion, anyone on the planet would be touched by the fraternizing that went on, not just the German, English and French. That’s why I’d like to show the film in a country that is at war.”

If you have not seen this film, I recommend that you do. I for one will be seeing it again as soon as possible.

Movie review- Somewhere Between (2012)

It’s the weekend and I’m at home flipping through various Netflix movies to see if anything catches my eye when the picture of two teenage girls with warm smiles grabs my attention. “Somewhere Between,” directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, is a documentary about four Chinese girls living with American adoptive parents.

As I begin to watch the documentary, I realize that each and every one of the girls is experiencing an identity crisis in some way or another. Haley, Jenna, Ann, and Fang are teenagers living in a world where they don’t quite measure up in the eyes of everyone else and in their own eyes. When you are adopted it is hard not to question your past and to want to know more about your birth parents. Everyone around you knows you’re different, even if you don’t want to admit it. The girls wonder why they have been abandoned and they feel a compulsion to search for their birth parents.

Jenna attends school in New Hampshire; she plays the guitar and is on the JV Coxswain crew. She struggles to be “perfect” because rejection is her biggest fear as a result of being abandoned by her birth parents. Haley resides and receives home schooling in Tennessee and is deeply religious. She struggles with her identity and is intent on tracking down her birth parents. Ann lives in suburban Pennsylvania and is the only one who doesn’t have a desire to learn about her birth parents throughout the documentary. Fang, who was adopted at five years of age and speaks fluent Mandarin, lives in California. She sets out to find her birth parents and at the same time helps a young orphan find a home.

Language is a very important aspect of this documentary because those who share the same language can be brought closer while a language barrier can cause problems. When Haley tracks down her birth parents and meets them for the first time, an interpreter is present because Haley doesn’t speak Chinese. When sensitive questions are asked, the linguist interprets the answers in a non-threatening tone. When asked why Haley was abandoned, the mother’s answer is simple and straightforward: the family was too poor to afford another girl. However the interpreter doesn’t give Haley the same answer. Instead, she provides a sugar-coated version. I wish the interpreter had given Haley a straight answer instead of making excuses for the mother. The birth mother’s answer suggests that if Haley had been a boy, she may not have been given up for adoption.

Fang’s fluency in Mandarin facilitates the adoption of an abandoned orphan girl with cerebral palsy. They become close friends and she interacts with the orphan in Mandarin, the only language the orphan knows. Fang bridges the gap between the orphan and American surrogate parents because she is bilingual in both English and Chinese. My favorite part of the film is when the orphan is led by Fang to meet her surrogate parents for the first time and says, “Mama,” when told to do so by Fang. In the end, the orphan is sad to see Fang leave. However, I am sure she’ll thank her when she grows up and realizes how much Fang has done for her.

I highly recommend Somewhere Between as it is only an hour and a half, even though I wish it were longer because it was so captivating. As an immigrant, I really identify with the girls who alternate between feeling like insiders and outsiders in either of the two cultures.

Film Review – Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (2000)

I recently enjoyed watching the award-winning foreign film, Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (2000), set in Casablanca, Morocco and directed by Nabil Ayouch, on Netflix.

I was initially disappointed to find that French subtitles were not available in the DVD I received so I viewed the subtitles in English. I had no complaints about the Arabic to English translation, even though generally speaking, I believe that for cultural reasons, Arabic to French translations of films more effectively convey meanings than do Arabic to English translations. French culture has been influenced by and is more akin than English culture to Arabic culture and moreover, French is commonly spoken in Morocco and Arabic more commonly spoken in France, where Ayouch was raised.

The film is not your usual children’s fantasy tale but rather a roller coaster of events of the deepest intensity that depict the lost innocence of homeless youth in Casablanca. It is fraught with contradictions in that it leaves you feeling depressed in one moment and smiling or even laughing for a short moment. Ali has chosen to run away and live like a pauper during his very short life while ironically, his mother lives in reasonably comfortable surroundings. She has done everything possible to make his life comfortable. Yet, the only problem is that she’s a prostitute.

As the title suggests, the film is about Ali Zaoua and his dreams of living a seafaring life where two suns set in different places. Early in the story, Ali receives a fatal blow to the head with a stone and his death shakes Kwita’s world. Nevertheless, Kwita becomes the new leader of the glue-sniffing, homeless trio of boys with men’s faces. The focus shifts to Kwita’s pursuit of Ali’s dreams, with the help of Omar and Boubker. It’s a story of loyalty. Kwita never abandons his devotion to Ali and declares that he will give Ali a burial suitable for the prince that he is. Omar and Bobker go along with the plan, regardless of the obstacles they encounter along the way.

Ali Zaoua is a story of defiance and triumph over adversity and oppression. Ali, Kwita, Omar and Boubker have extricated themselves from the control of Dib, the disgusting deaf-mute leader of the large pack of boys whom he has recruited and abuses sexually and otherwise, on a constant basis. Even though hatred, fear and despair can be felt as Dib’s minions show up repeatedly heralded by the pathetic mantra they repeat: “Life is a pile of shit,” Ali’s three survivors overcome and maintain their emancipation from Dib and his gang. They survive on the streets from day to day by begging, working, stealing and nurturing dreams and fantasies of their own. Most of all, they manage to hide and preserve Ali’s body, even though he has been dead for at least three days by the time they get help with their plans to bury him.

In the end, the compass given to Ali by Hamid, the compassionate boat captain, and subsequently, to Kwita by Ali represents a return to the right course as Hamid takes Ali’s body and allows the three boys to spend their first night on the deck of his boat. The boys are hopeful as they fantasize mostly about what Ali Zaoua must be doing. The story seems to have a happy ending when, witnessed by Dib and his gang, Hamid takes Ali’s mother along with all three boys out to sea to give Ali a proper burial.

Inch’Allah dimanche (Sunday God Willing) Yamina Benguigui, 2001

I recently enjoyed watching Inch’Allah dimanche, a French/Algerian film with English subtitles on Netflix. Even though there is some violence in the film, it is very easy to watch as the plot flows fairly smoothly. However, I wished the subtitles had been available in French and not just in English because I feel French subtitles better capture Arabic meanings than English ones.

Inch’Allah dimanche is the story of Zouina, a young Algerian wife, who, accompanied by her husband’s mother, Aicha, along with her three children, travels to France to be reunited with her husband, Ahmed who has been away from Algeria for quite some time. The departure from Algeria is heartrending and extremely traumatic for Zouina and her beloved mother who are both inconsolable as they separate.

Zouina’s form of dress gives one the impression that Algerian customs are relatively liberal in comparison with those of other Muslim countries where women are almost completely covered up in floor-length dresses, burqas, hijabs and niqabs. However, it soon becomes clear from the oppressive treatment she receives from her husband and mother-in-law that her feelings are not taken into consideration and there is not much difference. In fact, when Zouina, Aicha and the children finally arrive in France where the remainder of the film is set, Zouina’s husband never once shows her any sign of affection, apart from a cold, perfunctory hug when he picks up his family to take them to his apartment. If the viewer is looking for some show of tenderness between them, it never happens, which is surprising because Zouina is so attractive.

Throughout the film, Aicha’s words and behavior show how attitudes toward religion seem to play a vital role in family relationships among these Algerians. She constantly pronounces judgment on Zouina’s behavior and invokes Ahmed’s physical punishment upon her to “curse the devil.” At the boat, she shoves Zouina and upbraids her for showing emotion and for tearfully running toward her sobbing mother. As if her despair at having to leave her mother is something evil, Aicha asks Zouina if she has no shame or fear of God.

Zouina is able to enjoy very little interaction with the outside world, except to visit the grocery store and listen to game shows and talk shows on the radio when Aicha is not turning it off. However, determined to overcome the severe restraints on her life and freedom, she endures the constant verbal and physical abuse of her tyrannical mother-in-law and husband. “Damn you” are words he repeats to her upon her every infraction. She leaves viewers on the edge of their seats as she constantly risks further abuse by waiting until her husband and mother-in-law have left and constantly stealing out of her home with her children on Sundays to visit the outside world, knowing full well that such behavior is strictly prohibited.

The most pathetic part of the movie is when Zouina finally meets her fellow Algerian, Malika, whom she has expended every effort and risked her very life to see. She shares her new found ideas of freedom with Malika who, rather than being inspired, becomes very afraid and orders Zouina out of her home, accusing her of trying to have her killed. Malika’s internal conflict is evident as she tearfully stands behind the door, obviously torn apart while Zouina screams and cries for her to let her back inside and not to abandon her like this.

There seems to be no real dénouement and the story appears to end abruptly on a note of hope when Zouina arrives home with her children in the bus driven by a young man who passes her house everyday. She meets Ahmed and Aicha waiting outside with the neighbors and friends after having returned some four hours before with the sheep they have been checking on every Sunday to ensure its readiness for the upcoming Eid celebration. Ironically Zouina is holding the key that will let them inside the house. Instead of punishing her, as recommended by Aicha, Ahmed smiles at her and Zouina tells the children that from now on she will be taking them to school.

In the long run, Inch’Allah dimanche is a story of the triumph of the human spirit over oppression and the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifices to achieve a dream or desire.