A young man struggles to provide for his family in Harka, Lotfy Nathan’s debut feature screening in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. Set in Tunisia, it’s a quietly absorbing portrait of one man’s life in the wake of his father’s death.
Ali (Adam Bessa) hasn’t seen his family for a while but is suddenly left in charge of his two younger sisters. Ali sells gas on the streets without a license, and either hides the money he makes or boozes it away. Now, he’s expected to step up and lead a family, even though noone seems to think he’s suited for the job. This is a world where decisions are made out of desperation — and this will be the first of many.
Ali is visibly out of place in the family home, where his sisters lead a quiet and studious life — he even opts to sleep outside the house on the street. As his sisters muse on the reasons for this, so do we: does he feel worthless, undeserving of his father’s bed? Is he trying to protect his sisters? Is he more accustomed to sleeping outdoors?
Both writer/director Nathan and actor Bessa keep us guessing in the best kind of way. It’s engrossing watching Bessa’s often wordless performance. Ali becomes more vocal as he encounters problems gaining honest work; his frustrations building into a heart-breaking climax. There’s a Kafka-esque air as he pleads with authorities and encounters obstacles at every turn.
His predicament has a universal resonance, but there’s also a strong sense of place as people flee Tunisia at the border and the aftermath of the Arab Spring is felt. There’s also a memorable scene when Ali goes to a beach resort to see his brother, who works there. The tourists lunching at tables in the sun are casually spending the kind of money that might be able to save Ali’s house. Watching them through his eyes is a moment that might flash back to you when you’re next on holiday.
Performances are uniformly strong: Bessa is a versatile actor who can convey vulnerability one moment and anger the next. Salima Maatoug is excellent as Ali’s younger sister, though the choice to use her character as a narrator has mixed results, as does the music that accompanies it.
Harka is at its best when going for gritty realism, inviting us into the life and routine of a man who’s no simple victim, but a complex character whose fate is easy to invest in.