‘The Rooftops’, written and directed by Merzak Allouache
Starring Nassima Belmihoub, Ahcene Benzerari
By Ben Falk
The five daily prayers of Islam are the tick-tock that drives this Altman-esque examination of (almost) 24 hours in Algiers by local legend Merzak Allouache.
The writer-director focuses on ‘les terrasses’ – the roofs of the tall apartment blocks that dot this muddled, busy city, vistas of which are frequently captured by Allouache’s loving, almost worshipful lens.
That said, the snapshots of Algerian life he chooses to depict are not quite so beatific. There’s a young band, whose lead singer is hiding her love affair with a colleague, while she’s annoyed at an overly watchful neighbour. There’s a crime boss, whose henchmen almost drown an unwilling captive before doing far worse to an unsuspecting camera crew.
In other parts of the city, a ranting ex-revolutionary is kept chained up while his grand-niece listens to his story; a squatter does deals with a local sheikh-cum-doctor; and an old woman tries to keep her damaged family afloat.
The performances are natural and compelling but, as with any vignette-style film, some chapters are more effective than others.
As Allouache leads his large cast through a tapestry of storylines, it’s difficult not to get swept up in much of the drama. But by choosing to focus on so many narratives, backstory and context is lost and motivations are at times confusing.
This is particularly noticeable as the film moves towards its conclusion. Several of the stories have a sting in the tail, but at least two of the twists felt unearned.
It’s impossible to be specific here without ruining many of the plot surprises, but a brief nod to Muslim extremism is intriguing but maddeningly under-investigated, while the story of ballsy singer Aissa – at first one of the most entertaining elements – sums up these occasional miscalculations.
Nevertheless, Allouache is clearly both smitten and infuriated by the vibrancy and contradictions of his city. The film is beautiful to behold, which makes the flashes of evil in it all the more shocking. And those unfamiliar with the complex lives that teem above the Algerian capital will find much to involve them here, even if the thought of actually living on ‘The Rooftops’ is overwhelming.