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Friday, Dec. 16, 2005

On the road into Africa



Exils

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Tony Gatlif
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: French
Opens Dec. 17
[See Japan Times movie listings]


Masai

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Pascal Plisson
Running time: 94 minutes
Language: Masai
Opens Dec. 23
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Tony Gatlif's "Exils" is one of those films for people who can wake up one morning, clear everything out of their flat, grab their lover and just hit the road. Granted, not all of us are those sort of people, but if you ever wish that you were, "Exils" is the sort of movie that could be the spark that sets you off.

News photo
Romain Duris and Luhna Azabal in "Exils"

Good movies are fun, while really good movies clue you into other lives, other places, other aspects of existence. Truly great movies, however, have the power to actually change the way you live. You know the type, where there seems to be an entire philosophy of living contained in Jean-Paul Belmondo's slouch or Beatrice Dalle's saunter.

If I mention the French, it's because they're very good at insinuating this, and "Exils" is one of the best examples in many a year. Gatlif is best known as the leading exponent of Gypsy cinema -- from the ethnomusicological odyssey "Latcho Drom" to the flamenco-fueled "Vengo" -- but "Exils" is mostly Gypsy in spirit, giving us a pair of characters who live for music, passion and drifting.

Zano (Romain Duris, who also starred in Gatlif's excellent "Gadjo Dilo") is a musician who, bored with Paris, decides to hit the road for Algiers. He takes along his wild-child lover Naima (Lubna Azabal) on an improvised, no-budget journey to destiny. For both, there are issues to deal with: Zano's parents were French colonists who fled Algeria decades before, while Naima is of Algerian descent but totally Francified, a modern, liberated, Western woman in every way. Zano seeks some sort of communion with his parents, both of whom have passed away. Naima seeks little more than kicks with her lover -- and not just him, a point that causes a huge row in a flamenco bar in Seville -- but she's forced to confront her own inner demons upon arriving in Algiers.

News photo
Masai tribesmen in "Masai"

Gatlif's film plays very much like an actual improvised road trip, impressionistic and episodic; his characters f**k and fight their way across southern France, Andalusia, Morocco and Algeria. On the road, they encounter North African illegal immigrants heading the other way, hook up with a Gypsy caravan, pick fruit in an Almerian orchard and finally -- in an astounding climactic scene -- attend a Sufi trance ritual, where the two dance into a frenzy, shaking loose all the baggage in their minds.

As is usual, in a Gatlif film, it's a journey marked by musical signposts whether it's the percussive blast of Andalusian flamenco, or the rough-edged riffs of rai, North Africa's blues. Perhaps the most striking connection is that of the banging minimal techno on Zano's Walkman at the start and the repetitive, looping rhythms of the Sufi trance dance at the end. It shows -- as does the lovers' impromptu journey -- that the gap between tradition and modernity, East and West, is not as wide as we sometimes think.

While Gatlif's film looks at people uprooted from their culture, exiles both at home and abroad in search of a sense of belonging, Pascal Plisson's "Masai" takes us to the other extreme, to a small Tanzanian village near Lake Victoria where tradition and community are everything.

The Masai tribe are best known in the West from the photographic works of Leni Riefenstahl, who brought an almost fetishistic eye to capturing their athletic beauty and heroic posture. For Riefenstahl, the Masai symbolized the mythic connection between man and nature, and an ideal of physical perfection, the strength of the warrior. Considering she had forged similar connections for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s (in her propaganda films, "Triumph of The Will" and "Olympiad"), this was always somewhat troubling.

Plisson, however, is free of such ideological/philosophical baggage, and seeks simply to tell a very human tale of camaraderie and coming of age. It's a somewhat ironic contrast that while the exoticism of the landscape and tribespeople is played for maximum cinematic effect -- all painted, bead-covered warriors and shimmering mirages -- the story could be almost anywhere where boys fight and bond and a leader emerges -- "Stand By Me" with lions. Screenwriter Olivier Dazat did something similar for Eric Valle's "Caravan," and fans of that film will certainly love this.

Like that film, "Masai" doesn't talk down to us by having its characters explain their customs to, presumably, the viewer. Rather, it just immerses us in their reality. So if you're wondering why the Masai wear big, drumlike discs in their ear lobes, or why they cover themselves in red dye in a ritual, go read a book. But if you want to know what it looks and feels like to trek for weeks across hostile savanna, "Masai" delivers the goods, shot all on location using actual non-pro Masai as the cast.

The story follows a group of young Masai warriors on a quest to find the mythical King of the Lions, who they must defeat in combat in order to bring rain to their drought-stricken village. Lomotoon (Parkasio Montet) is the leader of the pack, trying his hardest to keep the squabbling group together; he's joined belatedly by his younger friend Merono (Maina Mako), whose courage belies his years. Together, they face parched desert treks, illness, an ambush by scary warriors of a rival tribe and even the indignity of sleeping on a nest of fire ants.

The cinematography, by Manuel Teran ("Savage Nights"), is never less than stunning, and half the pleasure here -- as with "Exils" -- is sharing the sights and sounds of the journey. The soundtrack is somewhat less rewarding, an amalgam of vaguely new-agey synths and booming drums that is cinematic shorthand for "ethnic" these days. Still, it's hard to imagine most major studios making a film like this without inserting a white character in the lead role somehow, so for Plisson, let's just ignore the missteps and enjoy this glorious evocation of this rarely glimpsed corner of the Earth.



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