The lone feature film by American documentarian James Blue is a fascinating cinematic time capsule, a glimpse at the last days of French colonial Algeria. As you might expect from a filmmaker who worked mostly on non-fiction films, it’s a picture that immerses us in a reality, with real locations and “the real people of Algeria” as its co-stars.
“The Olive Trees of Justice” is based on a novel “Les oliviers de la justice,” by its Algerian-born French co-star, Jean Pélégri. A new restoration and release by Kino Lorber reveals this 60 year-old film as no mere artifact or relic very much of its moment. It’s a sentimental but biting remembrance of an Algeria that was by a clear-eyed Frenchman who has returned as the country’s war for independence is ending.
Jean (Pierre Prothon), in his mid-30s, has returned to the land of his birth and youth to be with his dying father (actor/writer Pélégri). As Jean wanders the streets — filled with locals, but also with French soldiers, barricades and checkpoints — Jean tries to catch up with childhood friends. He narrates his thoughts and impressions, and he flashes back to his pre-World War II youth, when his father owned a vineyard where young Jean played with Arab friends and interacted with Arab farm workers, devout Muslims and others.
Jean never comes right out and says it, but he “gets” this revolt. He may be considering moving back. But when he declares he has no desire to “kowtow to every Arab,” his flashbacks suggest to he recognizes the European privilege he grew up under, the deference and indulgence even much older Arabic men showed him as a child of nine.
Chasing a man’s chickens with his bike might have earned an Arab child a slap. Jean had the immunity of his race. He remembers his father’s sometimes stern and even irritable dealings with his laborers. But the old man, who lost that farm years back, understands what the natives want. He may not approve of some of the acts of terrorism — cutting down vines and olive trees from French farms. But he could see it coming.
“I’m not surprised they’re rebelling,” he tells his son (in French with English subtitles). “Nobody talks to them anymore.”
Blue, using untrained actors for his supporting cast, immerses us in the place and this moment in time. We see childhood memories of the dowsing Dad did, hunting for water to feed his grapevines, of kids playing in the irrigation ditches and workers heedlessly spraying poisonous powder on the vines to protect against insects.
Blue doesn’t give us “The Battle of Algiers.” The war is omnipresent, with soldiers searching Arabs on every street corner, every drive — even the one to bury his father — means passing through checkpoints.
But that’s just one deciding factor in Jean’s pondering moving his wife and son here. The idyllic childhood he remembers is gone. And the sometimes brittle conversations with people from his past tell him that maybe it wasn’t as idyllic from their point of view. He hears how clueless his father’s cousin Louise (Huguette Poggi) sounded then, and even now.
“Force is the only thing ‘they’ understand,'” she hisses, suggesting “it’s in their religion” and that “shooting ten of them” as reprisal for attacks against property might “settle this.”
“The Olive Trees of Justice” is languid but never feels slow. It tells a story but not really with words and dialogue. And it traffics in sentiment without getting lost in sentimentality.
Seeing this on the heels of the latest Sean Baker (“Tangerine,” “The Florida Project,” “Red Rocket”) reminds us it wasn’t just the Italians who mastered neo-realism, and such films have never gone away. Here’s a film from the distant past that reminds us this is still perhaps the most immersive way to tell a story on the screen, peppering your picture with real people, showing us their lives and using that to lend authority to the fictional characters they interact with.
Cast: Pierre Prothon, Jean Pélégri, Huguette Poggi, Boralfa and Said Achaibou
Credits: Directed by James Blue, scripted by Sylvain Dhomme and James Blue, based on novel by Jean Pélégri. A Pathe film, a Kino Lorber restoration/release.
Running time: 1:22