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Cultural Connection, Sirocco

The Stain of War

Screenshot from The Repentant, Merzak Allouache (2012)

The Repentant is an Algerian film directed by Merzak Allouache (Bab El Oued City). It addresses the legacy of Algeria’s civil war and the intractability and tenacity of violence as a form of human behavior and as a perverse and self-justifying philosophy of values in which the ends justifies the means and there are no limits to brutality.
Year: 2012
Director: Merzak Allouache
Cast: Nabil Asli, Adila Bendimered, Khaled Benaissa

The film focuses on the attempts of the Algerian government to reintegrate former militants by providing them with amnesty if they surrender their weapons as well as their commitment to violence and religious fanaticism and manage to find themselves a peaceful place within Algerian society.

Screening now at the 56th BFI London Film Festival, The Repentant addresses the difficult and important topic of how societies that have suffered terrible conflict with egregious violations of human rights in which killing has become normalized, attempt to transition towards some kind of rule of law and reduction in violence.

Needless to say, such transitions are fraught with difficulty and The Repentant attempts to illuminate some of these challenges.

Unfortunately, despite its best efforts, so much of the film is unclear and excessively implicit until its final quarter that viewers are left at a loss as they attempt to understand the plot and the role of the characters within it.

The personalities of all of the main characters are extremely muted save for one – and consequently the viewer does not easily engage with them as their motivations, values, life experiences, and interior emotional lives are only hinted at leaving much of the film inaccessible and obscure.

The main character, a militant who is ready to return to society and has set aside his philosophy and practice of killing in pursuit of a particular violent incarnation of his faith seems not so much complex and ambivalent as a character but curiously unmotivated and detached in whatever his actions – whether as a former militant or as someone seeking to leave that past and begin a new life.

What he believes in, how and if this has changed, and his values are alluded to very vaguely.

The viewer has no real way of discerning meaningful insight into his character, life, and why he has chosen the pathways he has taken and their particular turns, detours, escapes, and entrapments from which there is no escape.

There are several powerful scenes towards the end, dialogues where the struggles and personalities of characters finally come to life and a denouement that is terrifying in its clarity, finality, and destructiveness.

The Repentant unflinchingly illustrates the poisonous nature of violent fundamentalisms, their wholesale disregard for the lives of others, their hermetic insularity and arrogance and incapacity to learn and change, and their intrinsic antagonism not only to human lives but to life itself.

But for even the most patient of viewers with a deep interest in the subject and in Algeria’s history and culture, too much of the film is evasive and sometimes simply unclear and fragmented to the point of confusion.

The director clearly has talent and vision and there are brief moments of tension and raw, honest emotion that reveal his capacity to bring out the grief, loss, terror, and brokenness that is the tortuous and tortured legacy of the civil war.

For someone with a specific interest in the transitions of societies recovering from civil war and/or Algeria this film, despite its opacity and other flaws, may be worth viewing.

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Noam Schimmel is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics as well as a London-based researcher and human rights practitioner with extensive development experience in the field. He has worked in India, South Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda, and publishes research in a wide range of academic journals including the International Journal of Human Rights and the >em>International Journal on Minority and Group Rights.

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