There is life left in the road movie genre. Ismaël Ferroukhi’s debut feature, winner of the Luigi de Laurentis Award at the 2004 Venice Film Festival for Best First Film shows that with subtlety and originality, the genre’s metaphorical power can still be distilled into something poetic and truthful, and not just an asphalt fetish and psycho-geographical tourism.
An elderly Moroccan immigrant in France orders his teenage son, Reda, to drive him on his Haji across seven countries to Mecca. Reda reacts badly because of his school commitments, but has no choice. The pair sets off on their pilgrimage and the signs of friction quickly start to show. The father is a religious man who sees himself as an authority who his son has to respect and attend to. Reda is more Westernalised (he’s got a French girlfriend who is digetically present via a photoghaph he takes with him) and his father’s inflexibility and authoritarian manners vex him deeply. But it’s also clear that there is not a record of life-long antagonism between them; all there is a cultural and a huge age difference.
The film gets on the road pretty quickly and the locations and situations flow into each other with ease, with well placed narrative rhymes. The music breaks into orchestral strings occasionally, pitching the emotions high to an almost schmaltzy level, but it works in contrast to the naturalism adopted by Ferroukhi. The characters are defined by small actions (the father throws Reda’s mobile phone in the bin at a petrol station, Reda expresses his desire to stop off at some of the cities) and the performances given by Cazale and Majd are very effective to flesh them out.
Particularly refreshing about Le Grand Voyage is the fact that at no moment it gets anywhere close to chipping in on the "Muslims in Europe" debate, the tired rhetoric of religion versus secularism, modern Europe versus traditional religion etc. We can leave that to governmental bureaucrats and newspaper editors looking for something sensational to write about. Ferroukhi instead focuses on basic human elements, weaving a story with an unexpected end.
Plus: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark( USA, 1988. Dir: James Signorelli. With Cassandra Peterson, William Morgan Sheppard, Daniel Greene) The cult, kitsch, goofy movie that launched Cassandra Peterson’s Morticia-like Elvira into the pop iconography gets a fresh DVD release courtesy of Anchor Bay. Peterson emerged from the same school of wacky comedy as Pee Wee Herman (actor Paul Reubens’s alterego), and her flagship movie is a mixture of John Water’s gross-out humour, Roger Corman-style B-ness (her production company is called Queen B) and endless sexual innuendoes. The storyline subscribes to the ‘freak in a small town’ school of caricaturing. Elvira goes to Hicksville to claim an inheritance from an aunt with a view to financing her Las Vegas show (a reference to Peterson’s own Las Vegas career), but becomes demonised by an evil uncle who turns out to be devil himself. Camp, chaotic and mindlessly funny, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is a very American film in the best sense of the word, one with a warm heart and a timeless feel about it. It may be a long way from Peterson’s Fellinian cinematic debut (her first screen role was Federico Fellini’s Roma, 1972), but deep down it’s not that far removed from it either.
Le Grand Voyage and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark are out on 27/02/06