Until The Birds Return (En attendant les hirondelles)

Algeria (2017) Dir. Karim Moussaoui

You cannot escape your past. Being young – by that I mean under 30 – doesn’t exclude you either, having already lived a third of your life. However, fate has a funny way of dragging those things we thought we had forgotten back up again.

Property dealer Mourad (Mohamed Djourhri) visits his ex-wife Lila (Sonia Mekkiou) to try to convince their son Nassim (Zineddine Hamdouche) not to quit his medical studies. On the way home, when Mourad’s car breaks down, he witnesses a man being attacked, but is too scared to call the police. When Nassim is taken to hospital following a motorbike accident, Mourad hears of a patient being beaten into a coma, and panics.

One of Mourad’s workers, Djalil (Mehdi Ramdani) drives his friend Tayeb (Chawki Amari) and his daughters Aïcha (Hania Amar) and Nadjla (Saadia Gacem) to Aïcha’s wedding. When food poisoning derails the trip, Djalil and Aïcha, formerly a couple, are forced to spend time together, realising they can’t let their past go. Finally, neurologist Dahman (Hassan Kachach) on his way to a promotion and a marriage, learns he is being accused of wrongdoing during the civil war.

I don’t know anything about Karim Moussaoui but from watching Until The Birds Return I suspect he is a fan of Abbas Kiarostami, which isn’t a bad influence for a filmmaker to have. I say this because the earthy style and texture of this triptych film has echoes of the late Iranian’s works, in how so much is unsaid but says a lot, as viewed through a distinctly curious prism.

Algeria, like many African countries, has suffered much turmoil via the 1991-2002 civil war. Whilst this film is set in the present day (well, 2017), it is implied the ghosts of this tumultuous time still linger for many. Finding a connection to something, anything, by way of bouncing back is the intrinsic theme, be it money, people, or status; For Mourad in the first story, it might be all three.

Wife no 1 Lila, a schoolteacher soon to retire, is a tough cookie by the way she carries herself, but Mourad also has a problem with French born second wife, Rahsa (Aure Atika). Desperately unhappy and homesick, Rasha wants to go home to France; Mourad is sympathetic, except a huge contract to build a new hospital has come his way and he needs to finalise that deal. Then Nassim’s accident happens and Rasha is shut out again.

Unlike portmanteau films that tend to be split into chapters, we segue into the second story through Djalil asking Mourad for time off to play taxi for Tayeb and his daughters. It’s so seamless and without contrivance that the simplicity of it is genius; Moussaoui does this again for the third story, where Dahman is a driver stuck on the road, flagging down the taxi with Aïcha as a passenger for help.

Djalil and Aïcha’s prior relationship is subtly introduced, initially leading us to believe the awkward frisson between them is possibly through attraction both want to deny under the circumstances, until they get a moment together. We are to infer Tayeb didn’t know about this or he wouldn’t have asked Djalil, or maybe he is a rare tolerant father in a society that would have had Djalil burned at the stake for splitting with his daughter.

Hints of enmity remain for Aïcha despite having moved on, but being with Djalil again has an interesting effect on Aïcha – first the headscarf goes, then the inhibitions, and finally the anger, like Djalil is a symbol of freedom for Aïcha. The reconciliation doesn’t come from a passionate snog, rather a culturally bespoke dance to a hotel band, the body language of the moves acting as the words they can’t seem to say out loud.

Less effective is the abstract intrusion of another music band, this time leading to a full on Bollywood-esque dance routine in the middle of nowhere by way of concluding this segment. I’m not sure what the point of this was, unless the lyrics to the song have a narrative purpose to wrap this portion up. I’m certain at least, that it isn’t relevant to Dahman’s story, arguably the grittiest of the three.

Everything is coming up roses for Dahman until learning a woman (Nadia Kaci) has surfaced, accusing him of being party to an unpleasant situation involving her during the civil war where he was a conscripted doctor. The timing is disastrous, but Dahman needs to know what the woman wants after all this time and hunts her down. The result is tragic in ways we in the west would not expect.

Moussaoui and co-writer Maud Ameline ponder these disparate situations with one unifying factor – the lack of a conclusion! They are all left wide open without a resolve of any kind even hinted, let alone assumed by the audience. It’s like reading a novel and the last page is missing. The film ends with a man who is hardly in it, therefore giving the denouement to someone we have no reason to care about.

Such wilful obliqueness makes this a frustrating viewing experience after the engaging builds of each arc – even the mundane opening act. I’m sure this will work for those who like to use their imagination to fill in the blanks, but people who prefer a pay off will feel let down. It’s a shame as this is a well-made and naturally acted film, not quite vérité style but with an honest observance about it that revels in its cultural identity.

Then again, I did suggest a Kiarostami vibe was present and he was noted for his abrupt endings, although they didn’t always work either. Until The Birds Return stands a film with an intention to explore prevalent social themes but not the conviction or depth to follow this through. However, it has something about it that makes for an enigmatic window into Algerian society.

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