Opening tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center is a French film titled “Fatima” that is a subdued and sensitive study of an immigrant Algerian cleaning woman trying desperately to provide both material and spiritual support for her two daughters. Unlike most narrative films, the plot does not revolve around some sensational incident such as a crime that drives the action forward. Instead, it consists of the quotidian but gripping crises that the family confronts with the mother Fatima (Soria Zeroual) soldiering on.
One daughter has just entered medical school and is deeply stressed by the workload. Like the children of many struggling Arab-speaking immigrants in France, Nesrine (Zita Hanrot) is the family’s hope for success even though the odds are against her. When she and her mother show up to see an apartment near medical school that Nesrine hopes to rent, the landlady takes one look at the mother’s hijab and tells them that her son forgot to give her the key–an obvious excuse for refusing to rent to Muslims. As evidenced by the racist attacks taking place over the “burkini”, France is a hostile environment for such immigrants.
Nesrine’s younger sister is a rebellious fifteen-year-old named Souad (Kenza Noah Aïche) who hates school, her teachers and authority in general. She resents her mother for her traditional ways and is ashamed of her lowly status as a cleaning lady. Above all, she seeks normalcy—something that is out of reach for most working class North Africans.
As the film’s title would indicate, it is mostly a portrait of Fatima who is played by Soria Zeroual with such a degree of naturalism that you might be tempted to believe that she is really a cleaning lady. Just after writing this sentence, I googled the actress’s name and discovered that this is actually what she was. Her amazing performance comes partly from her lived experience and partly from the obvious skills of director Philippe Fauchon, the son of a French soldier who had married an Algerian pied noir woman.
The screenplay for “Fatima” is based on “Prayer to the Moon”, a collection of poems, thoughts and other pieces of writing by Fatima Elayoubi, who came to France and worked as a cleaning lady. Her experience was so close to that of the actress who portrayed her that the net effect is seeing them as the same person, a universal symbol of people caught between two worlds, oppressed by economic circumstances, and seeking nothing more than a decent life for their children. As such, the film is about as moving an evocation of immigrant life as you can see this or any other year.
“In Order of Disappearance” is a Norwegian film that opens tomorrow at the Sunshine Cinema 5 in New York that is utterly without social or political significance but vastly entertaining. Directed by Hans Petter Moland, it stars veteran Swedish actor Stellan John Skarsgård as Nils, the owner of a fleet of snow plows in the far north of the country that is essential to removing what looks like the blizzard of the century on practically a daily basis.
In the first few minutes of the film, his son who works as a baggage clerk at a local airport gets abducted by drug dealers who mistakenly believe that he is in cahoots with another worker who has been a cog in their cocaine smuggling machine. After they learn that he has stolen a large part of their latest shipment, they force the two into their car and kill Nils’s son while the other man escapes. In order to throw the cops off their trail, they overdose Nils’s son with heroin in order to make it seem that he was only a junkie. When Nils shows up at the morgue to identify the body, he is told that his son accidentally killed himself through an overdose. He tells them, “My son was not a drug addict”, thus setting into motion a story that is nominally a somber tale about revenge.
Defying expectations, this is not a typical tale of a father taking on killers heroically after the fashion of Charles Bronson. It is instead a black comedy of the sort that Quentin Tarantino was once capable of making. It has Nils executing one gangster after another but often played for laughs. If you’ve seen “Pulp Fiction” and remember how Bruce Willis blasted a surprised John Travolta with his own gun as he came out of the toilet after taking a dump, you’ll get an idea of what “In Order of Disappearance” is like but ten times funnier, at times evoking a Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoon.
Performances are top-notch, especially from Bruno Ganz, another very fine veteran actor from Germany who played Hitler in “Downfall”. He is the godfather of a rival Albanian drug gang that gets into a turf war with the men Nils is after. The showdown between the two gangs will remind you of the climax of “Yojimbo” or “A Fistful of Dollars” that was based on Kurosawa’s masterpiece.
Highly recommended to get your mind off the Trump and Clinton campaigns and all the other disasters afflicting the human race.