French Movies that Don’t Suck

Inch’Allah Dimache. This one’s about an Algerian woman and her children who rejoin her husband in France in the early 70s when the north Africans who’ve come over to work are finally allowed to bring thier families over. The language moves from Arabic to French and back again, and they do some great things with the wife, Zouina, using French more and more instead of Arabic as she makes her decision to try and assimilate.

She spends much of the movie – the Sundays her husband and mother-in-law are away – to look for the only other Algerian family in the neighborhood because she and her children would like someone to spend the holiday of Aid with. What she finds is a woman who’s lived in France for the last 15 years, still primarily speaks Arabic, and calls her shameful for listening to the radio and kicks her out of her house for sneaking around without her husband’s permission.

Both women are servants, kept subserviant by tradition and religion, and dying a little inside every time they try to break away. Mikkala, the second woman, throws Zouina out of her house when she realizes Zouina has not told her husband of their meeting and is going about in public without him, and as Zouina sobs and grieves outside, there’s a shot of Mikkala, too, on the other side of the door, pounding her chest and grieving.

Zouina’s husband does beat her, but he does so in ways and for reasons that are completely supported by Islam. He does not beat her excessively, without reason, and he is genuinely good man concerned about his children. His actions are all very much supported by even liberal readings of the Koran. Everyone acts within the traditions they’ve been brought up in (the mother-in-law is the only one that sticks out as a real stereotype as the overbearing mother-in-law vying with her daughter-in-law for her son’s affection). As Zouina makes non-Algierian friends, there’s talk of “that book by the French woman with sex in the title,” and how maybe being divorced is better than having your body owned by someone else, but this movie doesn’t turn out quite the way I thought it would, and it’s all the better for it, because it’s far more believable than the ending I would have written…

It’s a film that speaks to something that Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks about in her book Infidel, as well: there are two kinds of immigrants, the kind who take the good things from both of their cultures and make them work, as Zouina is doing (but certainly not without huge amounts of grief and loss), and the kind who try and insulate themselves as much as possible from the culture of the country they’re living in and refuse to learn the lanaguage, adapt to the customs (and I mean “customs” like a woman going out to buy groceries on her own), and continue to live in a bubble.

Nobody’s life here – Mikkala’s or Zouina’s or even the native-born French woman’s next door – is presented as the happiest, best sort of life, but they do present a variety of choices for how we live our lives, and some of the harsh realities we have to deal with if we want to change our lives.

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