Ali sleeps in an abandoned construction site, and barely gets by on selling contraband petrol. Each day the police come by, well aware of the black market operations, and collect some of his profits. He dreams of leaving Tunisia, but when he learns of his father’s passing, Ali makes himself responsible for the care of his younger sisters. Things go from bad to worse when the siblings suddenly face eviction from their family home. 

Written and directed by Lotfy Nathan in his fiction debut, Harka is a deep-cutting drama that dolorously illustrates the Sisyphean nature of trying to lift oneself out of poverty in a corrupt system. This Un Certain Regard title succeeds in particular because the viewer, confined to their seat, feels as powerless to intervene as Ali is in his attempts to make a significant change to his dire circumstances.

The American filmmaker’s previous documentary experience manifests itself in the naturalistic stylistic choices spanning across cinematography and production design all the way to the performances.

French lead Adam Bessa, whose next project Extraction 2 sees him star opposite Chris Hemsworth, surrenders himself to his character’s frustration – and scintillates. 

The photography largely taps into natural light, and is not afraid of an occasional lack thereof. One of the excellently executed nightly car scenes appears to be illuminated merely by the glow of a single cigarette. The visual language is strong enough to overcome the not entirely seamless editing.

This multinational production permeates realism right down to the last gritty detail: dirty clothing that actually looks like it has been worn for years, and nicotine-stained teeth (when in real-life the actor has pearly whites). One can almost smell the body odour of the characters through the screen. The symbiosis creates a convincing truthfulness.

However this commitment is also something that leaves a bitter aftertaste. Dedication to realism in film should not come at the expense of life – while the decision to include a scene in which Ali kills a chicken is a perfectly justified dramaturgical device to accentuate his hard-boiled manner, the fact that it is not simulated and the audience is made to watch the beheaded animal’s agonising last moments taints the feature unnecessarily.

★★★☆☆

Selina Sondermann

Harka does not have a UK release date yet.

For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.

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