Abou Leila


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Abou Leila
"This is a long way off the beaten track of traditional narrative, but it is nonetheless engaging and affecting." | Photo: Courtesy of La Semaine de la Critique

Who Abou Leila is will not be revealed until a considerable way into Amin Sidi-Boumédine's dark psychodrama, which considers the collateral damage of war through the odyssey of two men - Lotfi (Lyès Salem) and his friend, who is simply named as S (Slimane Benouari) in the credits. Leila's identity is just one of the mysteries Sidi-Boumédine's film holds right from the credits sequence in which a man is killed on his doorstep.

It's 1994, in the midst of the Civil War in Algeria, and the two men are driving into the desert. There may be "only one road" but the journey the pair are embarked on is far from straightforward and the experiences of S, in particular, will soon take us into disturbing territory. S is evidently not a well man, needing tablets to sleep - and, quite possibly, to keep his creeping paranoia at bay, with an unsettling dip into his childhood through a well-worked flashback sequence triggered by a goat - a recurring motif in the film - telling us much of what we need to know about his state of mind. The bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label Whiskey Lotfi has hidden in the car also betrays the fact that he has issues of his own.

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This is a long way off the beaten track of traditional narrative, but it is nonetheless engaging and affecting as we see S becoming increasingly unable to distinguish between reality and dream while a mood of claustrophobia and dread permeates the film. Violence lurks in unexpected places as Sidi-Boumédine, smoothly abetted by cinematographer Kaname Onayama,  builds a picture of a society wound tight by terror - both visible and threatened. Employing considerable skill that belies the fact this is a debut feature, Sidi-Boumédine also shows how perpetrators of violence can be those you might least expect, given the wrong circumstances.

What is real and imagined for S are, initially, marked out by a change in mood as we realise what he is seeing cannot possibly be taking place. But soon the surreal begins to bleed into the everyday - just as the war has bled to the civilian streets from the battleground - until reality starts to come loose at the seams and the humanistic and animalistic fully blur. You have to be prepared to go with the emotional flow Sidi-Boumédine creates but if you are he'll take you on a trip to the fragile mentality created by war and make you think about the fact that though all this may be imagined it illustrates a troubling reality for many.

Reviewed on: 07 Apr 2020
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Two men take an increasingly surreal trip into the desert against the backdrop of Civil War.

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