‘The Last Queen’ review: unspoken desires and historic turmoil

The last queen
The Last Queen. (Photo: Amman International Film Festival)
Seldom does an Algerian cinematic creation delve as profoundly into the intricacies of history, encapsulating both personal and political dimensions, within the vast tapestry of storytelling where suffering seamlessly melds with beauty, as Adila Bendimerad and Damien Ounouri’s “The Last Queen”. اضافة اعلان

This exceptional narrative showcases an unparalleled romantic expansiveness, where the brilliance of classical elements coexist harmoniously with the cutting-edge modernity, often within the same frame. 'The Last Queen' serves primarily as a profound reflection of ongoing events in Algeria. However, its resonance extends universally to those grappling with questions of commitment.

“The Last Queen” competing at the Arab feature narrative competition at Amman International Film Festival (AIFF) 4the edition, and will be screened Sunday at 10 pm at the royal film commission.

A spoonful of ice
From the film's opening scenes, it immerses viewers in a captivating world of unspoken desires and historical turmoil. A woman of remarkable presence, Queen Zaphira, the second wife of King Salim, enchants her audience with a legendary tale. Holding a spoonful of ice flavored with sweetened rosebuds, she crunches it with mischievous sensuality, symbolizing the film's central challenge: the reappropriation, even reinvention, of history by a fearless woman unafraid of either the cold or passion. Portrayed by Adila Bendimerad, who is not only the actress but also the screenwriter and co-director of the film alongside Damien Ounouri, she asserts the omnipotence of storytelling in the face of political machinations.

Set in Algiers in 1512, the film follows the pirate Aroudj Barbarous, portrayed by the magnetic actor Dali Benssalah, as he liberates Algiers from Spanish tyranny. Accompanied by the formidable Scandinavian pirate Astrid, played by Nadia Tereszkiewics, he seizes power and orchestrates the assassination of King Salim, portrayed with nuance by actor Tahar Zaoui. This act leads to a rebellion led by the two wives of the king: Chegga, portrayed by the talented Imen Noel, and the youngest, Zaphira. While one is a skilled politician, the other grapples with her impulses.

Throughout history, the victors, leaving behind a distorted portrayal of events, have often dominated narratives. Algerian history, too, has suffered from a triple mystification: the imposition of a nationalist narrative that sidelines women, hyper mediatization of French colonial times, and a profound amnesia about Algeria before 1832. However, the film's formidable power lies in its ability to occupy, in both a combative and passionate sense, the narrative space, where Eros is entwined with Thanatos.

A master painting in a dark room
The port of Algiers probably made more sirens sing than that of Alexandria. An anchor point of Mediterranean trade during the economic reign of the Ottoman Empire, the North African city had nothing to envy in the Venice of the renaissance. Faithful to the spirit of an era that revived myths, The Last Queen rewrites the drama of it legendary heroine.

The Renaissance as a historical period, but also as an artistic effervescence, influences this film. Photography takes the time to play with lights, chiaroscuros, and cold tones reminiscent of the Flemish masters. With meticulousness, Shadi Chaaban, the director of photography, creates atmospheres which reflect the splendor of an economic golden age, of the great palaces, without falling into the cliché of the film on the Orient.

Here, there are no clichéd yellow filters of clumsy orientalism, no scenes constantly immersed in a scorching sun. The Last Queen is a tragedy, cold, like the hand of an unalterable destiny. The rain plays its own tragic role, the elements serve as much for the metaphor of an announced end as for a drama that cannot be avoided.

A dreaming Queen
Taking up the codes of great works, The Last Queen writes the story of its mystical queen of an Algiers between a great republic, close to the codes of ancient Greece, and a novel of piracy. In addition to the mythical queen, Barbarossa, legendary corsair with an iron fist, (literally an iron fist) deploys there as a conquering strategist.

From large epic action pieces, to paintings of the intimate lives of women who played politics in the shadows, the text by Adila Bendimerad and Damien Ounouri builds its characters as they are, and as they are perceived. The scenario juggles between public appearance, political debates, personal reflections and the excesses of madness of its characters, who are as much public figures as intimate beings.

“The Last Queen” is not the story of the great Algiers, a sumptuous trading port. It is a story of love mixed with ambition, of the widowed queen Zaphira and Barbarossa. And if the existence of the pirate is recognized by historians, that of his queen is much less so.

A controversial figure, Zaphira is an ideal subject for this kind of film. The screenwriters do not hesitate to move from dream to reality, even to confuse them, to give substance to fantasies and disastrous omens. It is almost a Shakespearean tragedy, in which the characters struggle with their announced end, which transpires in every moment of the story, gradually falling into madness.

A kind of sisterhood
Adila Bendimerad in the title role is an exercise that succeeded brilliantly. Dali Benssalah, as a not so bloodthirsty corsair, is a revelation. Together, they carry a cast that does not disappoint. Nadia Tereszkiewicz and Imen Noel shine as love advisors. One as a resigned foreigner and the other as a seasoned politician, they follow suit with talent.

In this story of conquest and political growth of an Empire in full struggle with Spain, women have the central role. The queens position themselves as a political uprising force. Chegga, the king's first wife, could have been embittered, envious. She is an ally, mistress of her own army, but never vengeful. When Barbarossa arrives, he is accompanied by love. Ally and sidekick, his lover will see him fight for Zaphira's affection, without disappearing in expected jealousy.

These women form a system of their own. They know that their interests coincide, there is a kind of sisterhood that emerges from the film. The dynamic remains benevolent, even when fate tears them apart. Zaphira, made regent by a twist of fate and blood, is queen in her own name. She refuses the frames that would be expected of a woman of her time, however powerful she may be. Adila Bendimerad makes this force vibrate, which flirts with madness, until the last minute of the film.

Every detail of the plot is thought out, all through its years of progression. The characters follow one another without falling into cliché, the breath-taking landscapes give certain scenes an air of fantasy. A whole universe of dreamlike codes and allegories unfolds there to build an imagination around a grandiose Algeria that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

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