Mar 5, 2008

Movie Review: "100 Percent Arabica"

One hundred percent Arabic is what the locals call their rent controlled neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris. Two leaders of a "Rap Oriental" band run into conflict with the imam Slimane who runs his mosque on the kickbacks he strong-arms from local merchants. The mayor, who is up for re-election, backs Slimane on the theory that religion will keep the neighborhood delinquents out of trouble.

Art/Foreign. 1 hr. 26 min.
Starring: Cheb Mami, Khaled, Mouss, Najim Laouariga and Fatid Fedier
Directed by Mahmoud Zemmouri.
Distributor: ArtMattan Productions

Review from The New York Times
If the Details Are Exotic, the Conflict Is Familiar

As the young dancers in the nightclub ecstatically gyrate to the music's hypnotic pulse, the older generation looking on is powerless to resist. One by one, the grown-ups get caught up by the beat, break into smiles and begin moving their hips.

Yes, the conflict in Mahmoud Zemmouri's "100 Percent Arabica" is an old one, familiar from innumerable rock 'n' roll, twist and disco movies in which young people discover and create a new sound or dance style that alarms, then seduces their wary elders. The message rings loud: you can't stop the music, and woe to those who try.

The irresistible sound in this particular variation on the theme is the fusion of Algerian rai (pronounced rye) and Western rap and European pop into a sensual but lyrically pointed trance music that is extremely catchy and rhythmically sophisticated. Smoother-sounding than rap and not so overtly aggressive and confrontational, the rai songs in "100 Percent Arabica" offer acute sociopolitical commentary with antiauthoritarian sentiments but refrain from strenuous gangsta-rap posing.

The music's most ardent opponents are the Islamic equivalent of those finger-wagging Christian elders in the 1950's who denounced rock 'n' roll as the devil's music. Algeria's Islamic censors, of course, are not to be trifled with. In 1994, the singer Cheb Hasni, known as the "prince of rai," was assassinated under a fatwa, a death warrant issued by fundamentalist Islamic leaders. As a result, many of rai music's most popular musicians, including the stars of "100 Percent Arabica," now live in exile in Paris.

But as "100 Percent Arabica" demonstrates, many social tensions in their homeland followed these immigrants into their impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris. The movie, which opens today at Cinema Village, pits a group of hip, attractive young people who are devoted to rai against the less attractive, religiously conservative squares who want to shut them up. Just to be absolutely clear about where the movie's political heart lies, it makes Slimane (Mouss), the chubby, bespectacled leader of the antirai forces, corrupt on top of everything else. In cahoots with a cynical mayor running for re-election, he collects the equivalent of protection money from neighborhood businessmen who can barely afford donations that will supposedly be used to build a new mosque.

The music's pied pipers are Rachid (Khaled) and Krimo (Cheb Mami), rival stars who have set the girls swooning, much to the consternation of their horrified parents. These local stars are already fantasizing about million-dollar recording contracts and fancy cars. They are popular enough that enterprising children who tape their concerts do a flourishing business selling cheap bootleg cassettes.

In the jovial spirit of vintage rock 'n' roll movies, "100 Percent Arabica" doesn't take itself too seriously. Its resident clown, Salem (Mohamed Camara), is a handsome but reckless young man who impulsively downs a bottle of Scotch after his crude passes at various women in the nightclub are rebuffed. In another comic bit, a prissy rent collector is outwitted by tenants who initially welcome him as a distributor of welfare checks, then change their tune when he hands them a bill.

If "100 Percent Arabica" is high-spirited, it is chaotically assembled. It leaves too many subplots undeveloped and barely addresses some of the political and social issues. But as they say, the beat goes on. And no matter what is happening in the movie, as soon as it bursts into song it feels good.


Produced and directed by Mahmoud Zemmouri; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Mr. Zemmouri and Marie-Laurence Attias; director of photography, Noël Véry; edited by Youcef Tobni; music by Khaled, Cheb Mami, Tak Farinas, Sage, Mohammed Hamhni, Cheb Tahar, Cheb Fethi, Cheb Tark and Nrodine Marsaoui; released by ArtMattan Productions. At the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 86 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Khaled (Rachid), Cheb Mami (Krimo), Mouss (Slimane), Majim Laoriga (Madjid), Farid Fedjer (Kamel), Youssef Diawara (Sylla), Patrice Thibaud (Bernard Lemercier), Mohamed Camara (Salem) and Nedjma (Zoubida).

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