“Tea in the Harem” is soft-core slice of life. It follows a couple of teen-agers, Madjid and Pat, whose pastimes include lifting wallets, stealing cars, pimping, copulating with lonely wives and making neighborhood nuisances of themselves. The movie, which opens today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, keeps insisting that they are charming, gallant, loyal to the point of sacrifice and generally superior to most of the adults around.
Written and very well directed by Mehdi Charef from his own novel, the story has autobiographical overtones. Like Madjid, Mr. Charef lived with his Algerian-born parents in a housing project in a working-class suburb of Paris, filled with people who were out of work. The appearance of a new French film maker who draws for inspiration on a hard childhood must call to mind Francois Truffaut’s ”Four Hundred Blows,” and many scenes of ”Tea in the Harem” do catch, without comment, the sad aimlessness of the youths who hang around the high rise. But as the movie goes on, Madjid is invested with a nobility that is hard to swallow.
Kader Boukhanef as Madjid and Remi Martin as his friend Pat serve Mr. Charef well. Madjid, with the face of an angel, expresses a fateful melancholy that brightens into joy now and then, only for a moment, at a piece of mischief that he and Pat have pulled off. Burly, baby-faced Mr. Martin gives a flat-out performance as a youth rushing exuberantly into the void. He has too much energy for the possibilities open to him; when nothing better presents itself, he lets off steam by barking and starting up all the dogs in the project. In a feelingly rendered soliloquy near the end, Pat fantasizes upon his future as a gigolo, and we watch as despair is turned into art.
Mr. Charef’s knowledge of what existence is like in a French housing project (no bed of luxury but, it appears, not as pathological as some American counterparts) comes through. He is at his best in carrying us into those busy apartments, where every day brings a domestic skirmish or worse. These are people on the outskirts of French society, some of them on the outskirts of existence. It’s a combat zone between the have-little and the have-less, between those with jobs who are trying to hang on and keep their children from going bad and those with nothing left to lose.
A strong subject – but as though mistrustful of what he has to tell us about their struggles, Mr. Charef resorts to plot devices that seem to have been lifted from paperback novels. An unemployed young mother, one leg over the terrace railing, is stopped from suicide by the sight of her son, held up in the nick of time by the quick-thinking Madjid. Pat’s sweet sister is driven to street walking – and who should approach for purposes of proposition but her devoted admirer, young Madjid? Madjid’s mother, a pious Moslem, seems to have imported her lines from the Yiddish stage.
Mr. Charef gives a patina of glamour to the solidarity of the down and out and works hard at making a favorable impression for his boys. Outside the project, they are predators; inside, they maintain standards. They beat up a heroin pusher and instruct younger kids in how to rape a retarded girl with gentle foreplay.
Blame for Pat’s illiteracy and Madjid’s joblessness is placed, fairly enough, on the society. Madjid goes job hunting; he is turned down for a training program ostensibly because of poor eyesight, but he, and we, can see that he is being rejected because he is an Algerian. An effective encounter. But Mr. Charef can’t leave bad enough alone. In comes a French youth, wearing glasses, and of course he’s going to be accepted for the program. Events are set up so that Madjid and Pat can display their depth of loyalty to each other. It becomes a bit much; a good tough movie goes mushy.
The title, in case you were wondering, takes a bit of explaining: Pat, who can’t read, encounters the phrase in a classroom, ”Le Theorem d’Archimede” (Archimedes’s theorem) and interprets it, romantically but embarrassingly, as ”Le The au Harem d’Archi Ahmed” (Tea at the Harem of Archi Ahmed).
Tea in the Harem (1985)
Directed by: Mehdi Charef
Starring: Kader Boukhanef, Rémi Martin, Laure Duthilleul, Saïda Bekkouche, Nicole Hiss, Brahim Ghenaim, Nathalie Jadot, Frédéric Ayivi
Screenplay by: Mehdi Charef
Production Design by: Thierry Flamand
Cinematography by: Dominique Chapuis
Film Editing by: Kenout Peltier
Costume Design by: Olga Berluti, Catherine Gorne-Achdjian, Maïka Guézel
Music by: Karim Kacel
Distributed by: Cinecom Pictures
Release Date: April 20, 1985