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Intense, beautiful ‘Exils’ chronicles self-discovery

Grace Myers | Monday, April 24, 2006

The 2004 French film “Exils,” directed by Tony Gatlif, tells the story of a couple who travel back to their parent’s Algerian homeland, in search of their past, their families and themselves. The rich story is marked by cinematography of excess – intense music, colors, sounds and sex. Throughout their journey through Europe and Africa, the couple struggles to find a place where they belong.

“Exils” deals with the difficult issues faced by thousands of Europeans from Northern African descent in a strikingly artistic manner. Indeed, the most successful aspects of the film were the technical achievements and the musical score, which highlights the different cultures encountered and propels the plot.

Actors Romain Duris and Lubana Azabal star as Zano and Naima, lovers living in Paris. In the heat of their passion, they decide to travel to Algeria, the country that they and their families fled when they were children. Out of necessity – but also as a personal challenge – they sneak on trains, buses and walk to Spain. They end up sleeping in fields, the forest and benches, and they are often mistaken for Spanish gypsies. They bring only a few pairs of clothes and their music as their baggage.

Music is their sustenance throughout the journey. When Zano says, “Music is my religion,” he neatly encapsulates the film’s emphasis on music in their lives.

They become intoxicated with the sensual land and music of Andalucía. Zano and Naima become lost in the primal quality of their new life independent of society, encountering many mishaps and adventures.

The audience comes to realize that they have not known each other for very long before they left on this journey. It becomes obvious that Naima has had a difficult life and now struggles with intimacy and having a sense of belonging. Lubana Azabal’s portrayal of this passionate and troubled character is astounding. The couple fights and make up passionately continually, as they learn more and more about each other and themselves.

In Andalucía, they meet Leila and Habib, siblings who left their homes in Algeria to work and study in France. Zano and Naima work in fields with them and hear their story. They also meet many other immigrants who have also snuck into Spain in hopes of finding a better life. Naima learns a little Arabic, while she tells Leila how to survive in Paris. The couple lets time slip by while they stay in Andalucia, until they finally decide to cross the Mediterranean.

Once in Africa, it becomes painfully clear that they are traveling against the norm. This is represented in a scene where the couple walks to the city where Zano’s parents and grandparents lived. They must walk against a large crowd going the other way, and in this manner, Zano and Naima recreate the path of exile.

Upon arrival in Algeria, Zano and Naima’s entire backgrounds are not revealed. Instead, the audience only sees the childhood house Zano fled from and a series of photos of relatives, making the past appear even more elusive.

The couple also struggles with the difficulties of the new culture, which is compounded by the fact that they speak very little Arabic. Naima is forced to wear traditional Algerian clothing to avoid being publicly scoffed for her immodest dress. However, she soon feels too constrained and quickly looses the garments. In spite of how little they know about their past, the couple manages to find a sense of who they are through these trials.

“Exils” is an incredibly interesting and striking film. The cinematography and music are stunning and highly memorable, a showcase for Gatlif’s talents as a director.

The film is difficult at times, but, overall, is a remarkable portrayal of a passionate journey to self discovery.