Viva Algeria

Before translation, the title of Nadir Moknèche's affecting melodrama Viva Algeria reads "Viva Laldjérie," which blends the French word for Algeria ("Algérie") with the Arabic ("El Djazair"). There's no more concise way to describe the conflicting forces at work in the film, which focuses on three women caught between the rising fundamentalism of the Islamic world and the cosmopolitan modernity of Western cities. It's hard enough for any single woman to feel safe in any urban environment, but in the middle of Algiers, where perceived immorality can have violent repercussions, these women are constantly looking over their shoulders. In many respects, their lifestyles have turned them into prisoners, though they're each rebellious enough to get into trouble anyway.

A photo-shop clerk by day and a free-spirited club-hopper by night, Lubna Azabal has been seeing a wealthy married doctor for three years, but his promises to leave his wife and marry her have gone unfulfilled. Lonely and damaged, Azabal retreats to a one-room residential hotel, where she lives with her flamboyant mother Biyouna, a widowed former cabaret dancer known to her fans as "Papicha." Hard-line fundamentalists have driven her into obscurity, but Biyouna takes action when she learns that her former club, the Copacabana, is being converted into a mosque. Meanwhile, their downstairs neighbor Nadia Kaci, a bright and vivacious prostitute, runs such a thriving business that she barely has time to talk, but the volume of customers also increases the danger of reprisal from Islamists.

Hailed in some circles as Algeria's answer to Pedro Almodóvar, Moknèche has yet to develop Almodóvar's formal chops, but like All About My Mother, Viva Algeria possesses a colorful spirit and a deep feeling for the plight of maligned women. The possibility of violence looms throughout the film, yet it's more of a subtle menace than an overt threat, keeping in tune with the realities of everyday life in Algiers. Though Moknèche's intentions are ultimately serious and politically minded, he still leaves time for the vibrancy of these characters to spring forth, especially when focusing on Biyouna's irrepressible urge to return to her song-and-dance roots. For this energy to be denied—or even stamped out—by strange men in the name of morality is a sad injustice that Viva Algeria expresses with great compassion.

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