Friday June 13, 1997
"Salut Cousin!" is the timeless story of the naive stranger coming to the big city, and Franco-Algerian filmmaker Merzak Allouache brings to it a freshness, vitality and beguiling rueful humor.
The film is too long by 10 minutes at least, but it is such a warm and endearing picture that you're likely to forgive Allouache for milking his finale for all its worth.
No small part of the picture's impact is in the Paris it shows us: the City of Light as experienced by the poor foreigner who has to reside in a shabby tenement neighborhood in the 18th arrondissement.
Alilo (Gad Elmaleh) is a gangly young man with curly hair and expressive eyes who arrives in Paris from Algiers on what is supposed to be a quick round-trip to pick up a large suitcase crammed with copies of designer gowns to be sold at great profit back in Algeria. Wouldn't you know that Alilo has lost the name and phone number of his Paris contact--and that his boss back home has taken off for Morocco for five days? It's a clever excuse for Allouache and his co-writer, Caroline Thivel, to keep Alilo in Paris for the kind of experiences sure to transform his life.
He stays with his cousin Mok (Mess Hattou) in a tiny, ancient apartment. The Paris-born Mok, with his sideburns and goatee, is desperate to make it as a rapper; he lifts from La Fontaine's fables, of all sources. Mok is up to his ears in the latest Parisian slang and trendy punk attire and lives by his distinctly limited wits. There's a likability, even sweetness, about Mok, with his beloved goldfish and flamboyant wardrobe, but he's wildly unreliable and dangerously foolish.
The adventures that Alilo embarks on with his cousin are funny, but as the film progresses, its serious undertones begin to surface. "Salut Cousin!" is very much about the pain of surviving in an often nakedly racist and unjust society and the pain of contemplating an Algeria beset with strife and oppression. Alilo meets a number of fellow countrymen who long to return to Algeria but feel that it will never be possible to do so.
In telling his story, Allouache shows us a Paris that never seemed more like Los Angeles in its rich yet volatile multicultural diversity, its graffiti-scarred shabbiness and its garish sex industry establishments. Elmaleh, Hattou and others are totally winning, as is the seductive, exuberant Arabic music of Safy Boutella's score.
"Salut Cousin!" leaves us longing to see Allouache's 1994 "Bab El Oued City," his indictment of Islamic extremist violence in his homeland that turned him into an exile himself.
Salut Cousin!, 1997. Unrated. A Seventh Art release of a JBA production. Director Merzak Allouache. Producer Jacques Bidou. Screenplay by Allouache and Caroline Thivel. Cinematographer Pierre Aim. Editor Denise de Casablanca. Music Safy Boutella. Art director Olivier Raoux. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Gad Elmaleh as Alilo. Mess Hattou as Mok. Magaly Berdy as Fatoumata. Ann-Gisel Glass as Laurence.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun