Zano and Naïma are a young Parisian couple, both of them with Algerian origins, but both of them have been violently wrenched from their families and their roots in different ways and feel discontent with their lives. One morning, Zano suggests they make a trip to Algeria – on foot. It’s a long way across France and Spain to get to their destination, but the journey they make within themselves is even greater. On paper, there would seem to be little to distinguish Exiles from hundreds of similar road-movies about rootless characters searching for meaning in their lives, but in the hands of Tony Gatlif – a French national of gypsy and Algerian descent himself - the rather schematic storyline of a journey towards self-discovery becomes something rather more personal and vital.
The fact that Exiles is no ordinary road-movie is apparent right from the very first frame of the film – a close up of Romain Duris’ naked back. The camera pulls back to reveal his character Zano in complete nakedness, gazing out of a window at a busy urban street. In bed his similarly utterly naked girlfriend Naïma (Lubna Azabal) is carelessly spooning food into her mouth while a pounding dance track plays out from the hi-fi. Wordlessly in this scene, up to the moment that Zano utters the simple phrase that starts everything off – “Let’s go to Algeria” - everything you need to know about the characters is perfectly established. There is a sense of complete abandon to sensuality, a restlessness, a dissatisfaction with their lives and a need to push themselves further.
In another film and in the hands of a different director, as in Fatih Akin’s overly sensationalised Head-On, that impulse can be a self-destructive one, the characters spiralling into drugs, self-harm through a mutual love-hate relationship they have towards another person in whom they can see their own flaws. Focussing on rather damaged, extreme characters Head-On doesn’t tell us half as much about individuals dislocated from their roots as Exiles. Gatlif brilliantly expands the sensations that the characters feel in a deeply expressionistic manner out into the world around them. Their journey across Spain is therefore a riot of sensations and uncontrollable passions, expressed again in nakedness, in heat, in thunderous downpours, in the ripe fruits Zano and Naïma pick while working for money, in water and through the presence of nature in many different forms. The close sensuous relationship with nature and one’s passions is also expressed not only in the people they meet - encounters with gypsies, Algerians making the opposite journey to Paris and Spanish labourers – but also in the music each of those people carry within them, from the Andalucian flamenco and cante jondo to trance-like North African rhythms. The music is enervating and inspiring, pushing the characters further along their journey and into deeper passions - but they are dangerous passions if not properly controlled and respected
Exiles has a wonderful flow to it in this way - a real road-movie that goes where the road and the mood takes it. There is a destination in mind, and while you rarely doubt that the characters are going to get there, you have no idea what is going to happen to them between Paris and Algiers, or the manner in which it is going to be expressed. Both characters have a lot of personal baggage they are carrying with them, and inevitably facing up to who they are in a land where the language, customs and religion are alien to them is going to be a tumultuous experience. Even here however Gatlif surpasses any expectations or preconceptions the viewer might have for a pat ending, with a climactic exorcism that expresses itself on pure sensation alone. Even for those who have experienced Gatlif’s extraordinary technique before through Gadjo Dilo or Latcho Drom, Exiles surpasses them in its pure raw energy. It’s a shattering conclusion that completely draws the viewer into the world of sensations the director has expressed throughout this remarkable piece of filmmaking.
Exiles is released in the UK by Drakes Avenue. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
The transfer for the film can best be described as basic – but good basic. Colours are fine, without really being as fully vivid as they probably should, but there is a reasonable level of detail and the tones seem correct. Technically, there is some edge enhancement, mosquito noise and some compression artefact blocking, but they scarcely cause any obvious problems during normal playback on a normal sized display. Overall, it’s perfectly adequate, but I suspect this could look so much better.
The audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0 only. Exiles simply cries out for a surround mix, with its highly active soundtrack packed with ambience and a pounding music score. As it is, the sound is clear and strong, but again, basic – conveying the necessary impact of the film without doing it full justice.
English subtitles fixed on the transfer and cannot be removed. I mean, come on – it’s the least you ask for. On this release however, where the absolute minimum has been done with the transfer, it shouldn’t be a surprise. They are in a white font and a shade on the large side and appear to be fine, translating the various languages used in the film well.
Obviously, considering the above specs, there are no extra features on the disc.
This is wonderfully vital and expressive filmmaking that isn’t so much interested in following a narrative line or character arc as much as immersing the viewer completely in the experience of being what it means to be lost, rootless and uncertain about one’s personal identity. While the structure and theme is somewhat schematic, following the road-movie convention in its exploration of these themes, the manner in which Tony Gatlif expresses them is anything but conventional. Using every means at his disposal, from the expressive camera work, to the pounding dance and techno score with Arabic rhythms – most composed by Gatlif himself – and the extraordinarily uninhibited performances of Lubna Azabal and Romain Duris (a Gatlif regular who learned his craft in the director’s films), it is the viewer more than anyone who is taken on a remarkable journey. By rights, I ought to complain loudly about the mediocre barebones DVD transfer of this exceptional film by Drake’s Avenue, but the mere fact of there being a UK release of this film at all for people to discover and enjoy is enough. It’s an opportunity that you really shouldn’t pass up.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 02:55:20