El Kalaa

Director Mohamed Chouikh / 1988 / Algeria

In the rugged little Algerian village of El Kalaa, life is divided into male and female society. The men have as many wives as they can afford; the women have as many babies as they can, and also do all the cooking. The men have a good time playing chess all day, joking and hustling each other; the women wear head-to-foot veils. The men beat their wives and trade women for cloth; the women weave the cloth all day. According to the Koran, this is how things should be, for 'paradise is under a mans foot'.

Director Mohamed Chouikh presents a powerful indictment of patriarchal Arab society, with it's polygamy and contempt for sensitivity. Surprisingly, the story is told through the eyes of a man — Kaddour, a simple chap who has no choice and no place in the macho world of the village elders.

Old Sidi has three oppressed wives — one on the verge of depressive suicide — and wants another. He beats Kaddour (his adoptive son) for mooning romantically over a married woman, then slips into the same woman's house and seduces her. Poor Kaddour meanwhile performs penance and magic rites dictated by a charlatan guru to win over the girls affection. When Kaddour becomes an embarrassment to Sidi, he makes a bet that he will marry off the boy in a matter of days, or else repudiate his wives. This he eventually does, with tragic consequences.

Opening and closing the film with spectacularly filmed wedding scenes, Mohamed Chouikh focuses his story on the roles men and women play, and Arab societies fundamental intolerance towards new roles for either sexes. Particularly in the scenes within the women's sector, he captures with remarkable candour the anger, depression and frustration of women in a world where '1,000 women do not reach a mans heel'.

Chouikh fills this grim Tale of Hoffmann with a great sense of humanity, yet finds a place for a number of unexpectedly hilarious moments. An essentially 'feminist" film, from an Arab country, made by a man, this is a remarkable film in every way. Attractively shot and flawlessly directed, The Citadel is one of the best films made anywhere in the last year.

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