Gatlif’s ‘Gadjo Dilo’ (1997) was something of a 90s Euro-arthouse gem; upbeat and unconventional, it brightened the lives of those who came across it whilst remaining hidden, over here at least, from general view. Seven years later, Exils (yes, ‘Exiles’) is that movie’s clear descendant, revelling as it does in Gatlif’s passions: music, travel, life, love. The Algerian-born auteur delves deeper here, though, turning up darker material in a romantic journey which, whilst superficially very similar to Gadjo Dilo, is in fact far more complex and unsatisfying. That is not to say that it is ‘bad’ unsatisfying: rather, that this is the more mature work, refusing clear-cut narrative turns or any definitive emotional catharsis, no matter how close the characters appear to be to one.
The movie opens on Duris’ (not unpleasant) naked form, dropping a half-empty glass of beer from a high-storey apartment. As Zano, he has no ties, no responsibilities and no direction; all he has is the crazy girl covering herself in whipped cream on his bed. The history of Zano’s relationship with Naïma (Arabic in name but hopelessly rootless) is never fully described, but she agrees there and then to accompany Zano on a pilgrimage to their fatherland, Algeria, and it is this journey that forms the bulk of the film.
Duris played a similar kind of hero in Gadjo Dilo, and the romantic larks interspersed with Gatlif’s musical/cultural indulgences follow a similar pattern. The couple’s relationship, though, is framed by solitude rather than the vibrant gypsy community of the earlier work. Whilst Duris’ troubled wanderer persona is magnetically whimsical, charming and vulnerable, it is Naïma who is involuntarily out to spoil the party. The flip side to her uninhibited spontaneity is her wanton, nihilistic tendency, and Zano’s blindness to the hurt their ‘healing’ journey is causing her is testament to Gatlif’s more pessimistic outlook this time round. If Gadjo Dilo’s shiny edge was taken off it by death and community tragedy, then Exils’ is pulled beneath the dry earth by the agonising frustrations of inner turmoil, indescribable emotional scars, insurmountable personal demons.
There’s one key passion missing from that list of Gatlif’s obsessions: people. Exils loves and understands every one of its characters and extras, even as it is unable to excuse them or save them. Gatlif writes from the heart, the belly and the ‘sexe’, so his refusal to rationalise whilst delving into his characters psychic worlds is what makes Exils less accessible than Gadjo Dilo. The audience’s reaction, though, confirms that Gatlif is consistently able to make a very human connection with his viewers. The vibrant romance, the sweltering cinematography and Gatlif’s brave, rewarding faith in the pockets of ‘incidental’ culture he turns his camera on for whole scenes at a time make his movies a unique, visceral experience.
Make no mistake: for all its darkness, this is another joyous film. It is perhaps best described as the shadowy side of the diptych; to hop genre, Exils is to Wong Kar-Wei’s Fallen Angels (1995) as Gadjo Dilo is to Chungking Express (1994). Get the whole picture: track down a copy of Gadjo Dilo and see Exils while you can.