French-Moroccan actor Roschdy Zem has built up an impressive filmography over the past three decades, with major roles in the police thrillers 36 and Le Petit Lieutenant, the historical epics Days of Glory and Outside the Law, and a Cesar award-winning performance in Arnaud Desplechin’s 2019 cop drama Oh Mercy!

Alongside his acting career, Zem has also created an intriguing body of work as a director, tackling cases of racism in France at both the turn of the century (Chocolat) and in the 1990s (Omar Killed Me), exploring the cutthroat world of weightlifting (Bodybuilder) and delivering a down-and-dirty film noir (Persona Non Grata). Some of the genres are handled better than others, but what his movies tend to have in common is their array of finely tuned performances, including a few by the director himself.

Our Ties

The Bottom Line

A solid, if limited, family drama with a memorable lead turn.

Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Sami Bouajila, Roschdy Zem, Meriem Serbah, Maïwenn, Rachid Bouchared, Abel Jafri, Nina Zem, Carl Malapa, Anaïde Rozam, Lila Fernandez
Director: Roschdy Zem
Screenwriters: Roschdy Zem, Maïwenn

1 hour 26 minutes

That streak continues with Our Ties (Les Miens), a warm and thorny ensemble drama reteaming Zem with Omar Killed Me star Sami Bouajila — one of the very best actors working in France today — and uniting him for the first time with actress-director Maïwenn (Mon Roi, Polisse), with whom he co-wrote the screenplay.

Our Ties is definitely Zem’s most Maïwenn-esque movie: It features an extensive cast playing the bickering members of the same family, with performances that feel fresh and improvised without going too over-the-top. But it’s Bouajila’s turn as Moussa, a 50-something single dad who gets dumped by his second wife and then gets into a life-altering accident, that steals the show. When the actor is on screen, the film tends to come alive, and Bouajila carries a story that works well for the first two acts until getting tripped up by an abbreviated, not-fully-earned ending.

We meet Moussa just after he’s been abandoned by his latest spouse, for reasons that are frustratingly never made clear to him. This leaves Moussa in a major rut that he hopes to overcome by spending long hours at his desk as the CFO of a small French company. When his secretary invites him to a party one night, hoping to either seduce him or get him to relax a bit (possibly both), he drinks too much and winds up taking what looks like MDMA. Drunk and drugged, he trips and falls flat on his face, inducing a minor coma that leaves him in a bizarre, narcoleptic state of purgatory.

Moussa is not only heartbroken but now he’s head-broken, too, and it’s up to his fighting family members to look after him. The caretakers include his children, Nesrine (Nina Zem) and Amir (Carl Malapa), both in their early 20s; his sister Samia (Meriem Serbah), who plays a motherly role; and his brothers Salah (Rachid Bouchareb, director of Days of Glory and Outside the Law), who’s half-retired, and Ryad (Zem), a TV celebrity who hosts his own sports show and rarely has free time.

While the clan engages in much squabbling early on, they manage to come together over Moussa’s accident, but there’s a major hitch: Part of Moussa’s condition, which has left him bedridden with a giant bump on his forehead, is that his brain now functions in such a way that he no longer talks with a filter, telling everyone — including his fairly spoiled kids — exactly what he thinks of them.

The #nofilter Moussa can be disarmingly childlike and offensively straightforward, and Bouajila plays him like a zombie who’s been injected with too much truth serum. He’s a man who’s taken lots of abuse in his life, either from his family or his exes — the scene where he’s forced to finalize his own divorce via Zoom is heartbreaking — and now he’s dishing it back. Moussa has been wounded, both mentally and physically, and his grating honesty is part of a long and hard healing process — what the French call the deuil, or mourning period, that follows a major loss.

Some of Zem’s films have featured characters who are minorities, but he’s never concentrated on an entire North African family like this before, and his portrayal of Moussa’s clan avoids some of the stereotypes we tend to encounter in French cinema. The family is fully integrated into Gallic life, to the point they eat veal and string beans for their Sunday lunches instead of Moroccan staples like couscous or tajine. Of the five siblings, Moussa and Ryad are especially successful, working high-pressure white-collar jobs that can make them rather hard to live with — a point of contention between Ryad and his actress girlfriend, Emma (Maïwenn), who are in a testy relationship that never gets the full treatment it should.

Zem lays lots of groundwork for conflict, which comes in fits and starts as Moussa makes everyone around him miserable while gradually getting better himself. But his candor also plays a role in curing whatever maladies his kids and siblings are facing in their own lives, and being around him can be both taxing and rewarding.

With nearly a dozen characters, some way more developed than others, there’s enough going on here for either a longer movie or a mini-series, but the director opts for a truncated third act where everything gets resolved a tad too easily, as if the effects of Moussa’s trauma had worn off completely. The damage done isn’t permanent, and all the hardship leads to better things.

Perhaps Zem was too enamored with Moussa and his loved ones to make them suffer too much, and you can’t deny how warmly he captures his cast — including his daughter Nina, who’s memorable in her first big screen role — working with DP Julien Poupard (Les Misérables) to create a tender atmosphere in which the drama plays out. The result is not necessarily as strong as hoped for, but it still packs a good punch, especially when Bouajila unleashes the beast onscreen. Zem gives his characters a good beating, but then applies the Band-Aid too quickly.

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