Review of ‘The King of Algeria’: A Friendship Forged in Crime

The King of Algeria
(Photo: Amman International Film Festival)
“The King of Algeria” Omar la Fraise, a dark, hilarious and speedy comedy, Elias Belkeddar follows the run of two thugs in limbo Omar (Reda Kateb) and Roger (Benoît Magimel)اضافة اعلان

These two crime lords were kings in Paris. Thieves respected beyond French borders, including their homeland of Algeria. After a turbulent and bloody transaction, which they narrowly survive, the bandits find themselves stuck in a huge villa in the Algerian countryside. Two leather sofas and a gigantic TV struggle to fill the voids in the property, and the film’s protagonists.

The film will be screened as part of the AIFF, at 6 pm, Friday, August 19, in Taj Cinema. 

With “The King of Algeria”, Elias Belkeddar draws a portrait of an Algerian gangster, showing the paradoxes, and duality of such an individual. While the film draws on much of the gangster film canon, its unique setting and characters give it a unique feel, and many unique moments.

His film becomes unclassifiable. The ruthless mingles with laughter, serious criminality mingles with the derisory of routine, romance invites itself into violence, flamboyance confronts the twilight, whimsical poetry nestles in cruelty. This is not just a gangster film, and does not follow the usual trope of ‘started from the bottom’, we see them after their fall, trying to lethargically live ordinary, retired, and bored lives. The virtuosity with which all this is mixed is the film’s most seductive feature. Just like the characters it portrays, the singularity of the film lies in this in-between position that it occupies.

The gangster film
In terms of its crime inspirations “The King of Algeria” could be a Tarantino but without breaking the fourth wall, it could be Guy Ritchie but without the wacky.

The King of Algieria sets the tone from the opening credits. The stab wounds are numerous and come to bloody white shirts, while a cinder block is heavily crushed on a face. A massacre that Omar and Roger watch from afar, and from above, with detachment and nonchalantly advancing through the alleys before recovering their coveted package with just as much relaxation.

Heir to Scarface, Goodfellas, and The World is Yours, Belkeddar manages to find his own voice in the vast landscape of gangster films. A voice full of humanity in all its beauty and awfulness alike. While most gangster films keep away from themes of beauty, fearing the way such themes might interact with the predominance of crime and filth in the film, the largest crimes are in the past in this picture. The film’s position in liminality means it does not fear such beauty, it also maintains distance from the dominant crimes geographically, as these two characters were criminals in France, here in Algeria a much more personal story is being told.

The buddy film: Kateb and Magimel’s jubilance
Omar and Roger are best friends, almost brothers, and the two characters are bored, and hence always looking for fun, much of which we are given the privilege of seeing. And this fun is where Kateb and Magimel shine as actors, it radiates, and you can tell they are enjoying the seen just as their characters are. But while Omar has no trouble acclimatizing and sets up his little tricks and hustles to happily occupy himself, Roger wanders and gets bored.

Elias Belkeddar offers scenes that are alternately aerial, where photography magnifies the landscapes, then becomes brutal as soon as the two bandits let loose in a nightclub. In both cases, all these moments only serve to describe their passionate relationship and their loyalty, as well as the duality of their positions. King of Algeria is filmed with a style that could be described as poseur but which fits perfectly with the over the top protagonists.

A romance film: Meriem Amiar the heroBut a point comes when Omar has to find an occupation, "a clean business" to move forward. He therefore accepts the position of associate manager of a pastry factory. During this job he will reveal his more childish temperament and meet Samia (Meriem Amiar) with whom he falls in love. Their complicity and their romance represent both a thinning and an unexpected way out for the anti-hero, and is above all at the origin of some of the most beautiful scenes of the feature film, Meriem Amiar stealing the show from her two partners and even succeeding in eclipsing Benoît Magimel, however monstrous.

Samia gives a conscience to a big child for whom crime has always paid. But Bekdar expertly navigates the archetype of the innocent woman, saving the guilty man. This is largely done through the nuance of the character’s writing and the actor’s performance, but also through her equally lively relationship with Omar’s best friend Roger. The trio is flamboyant but deeply endearing, allowing the film to add complexity to its romance. The moments when all three are united are brief but defining scenes, where the feelings of freedom that the two gangsters have always sought reach their climax. Inevitably, after their arrival at the summit comes the descent.  

The endElias Belkeddar mixes up all his ideas and delivers a sort of tragicomedy between bitterness, tarnished radiance, and quirky fun. With a buddy movie look approach to these two thugs united from their heyday in Paris to their new idle existence of exiles in Algeria.

Something earthy emerges from the new adventures of these two accomplices now living off of small schemes. Serious criminals do tricks to raise money, but when it comes to taking advantage of it, they get bored and miss their past lives. Retirement suits them very badly, just as their huge shack with a swimming pool in the sun. A duo of terribly endearing characters, just as endearing as the two complementary actors who play them jubilantly. A film that depicts a happiness in the heart of Algeria, and superbly filmed with authenticity.

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