Fadhel Messaoudi (played by himself) is in a fatal car crash. His soul ascends to a purgatorial stasis, imagined via the images of interrogation from Marker’s La Jetée, and is confronted with the perspective of gamification. He is to return to Earth wearing a VR headset, geared up in interactive gloves, et al., to encounter his body and the story it’s made of. Fadhel, however, once returned, assumes the identity of Abou Hourayra, the protagonist of Mahmoud el Messadi’s Thus Spoke Abou Houraya, adapted into this RPG form through which the embodiment of Fadhel becomes abstracted into fragments oscillating between diegesis and documentary artifacts (archival video, photos, oral anecdotes). We are subsumed, through this fragmentation, into a subjectivity, of both Fadhel and Renaissance‘s director, Nader Ayache: of their storied pasts of migration and exile, the politic in diaspora, homelessness, and cultural (which leads into self-) alienation. Context will likely be lost for those ignorant of Messadi’s text, like this writer, in the process of this film’s adaptation. Nonetheless, this fractured Tunisian portrait assuredly explicates the divide between nostalgia and toil: the weight of years as they become statistics in one’s own life’s story. Fadhel recounts this at one point rather poignantly, musing, “I spent 23 years in Tunisia. I’ve spent 30 years in France. I wonder where I’ll be buried” — very much an attempt to reconcile the self as it becomes diminished via a state’s bureaucratic apathy and the self’s estranged gaze of one’s homeland. Renaissance is a work that seeks catharsis, the beginning of a process where the music of a reverberating oud remains beautiful and new, where the melody proliferates rather than withers out of tune.
But for that, the aesthetic that intrudes on these lives under the duress of fiction is troublesome. Messaoudi and Ayache become players in a construct of irreconcilable fatalism. Life and its tragedies, its vagrancies and pains, become merely products of a coded video game. Hybridity often brings to the surface the tension between fiction and cinema’s adaptation of reality through its documentation, but to take that fiction and reconfigure it through the machinations of preordained constructs belonging to other mediums is a perplexing choice, one presumably only engineered so as to break that modality come the film’s conclusion. The impression is that Renaissance is a work whose intentions and ideals are transparently gleaned through its montage: each sequence is just another facet to add to a thesis. Such an intellectualized approach to this subject shifts the film’s movements toward those sensibilities of the essay, only intruded upon through the fictive. There’s an incongruity between the work’s spectacle and its delineation of concepts. The scene that most underlines this comes when we receive a first-person perspective of Fadhel’s experience with housing insecurity; to bring gamified aesthetics to such a subject reeks of a distance that hinders the film’s emotional capacity. While Renaissance’s independent spirit is bright and invigorating, its intentions, while superficially clear, read as more tangled by its conclusion. Film does not seem the ideal form through which to experiment with this relationship of an external medium’s aesthetic and the text at the core of Renaissance, at least in its current, non-reflexive mode. Ayache’s film is a curious work, certainly, but also a lacking one, received but never felt.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 27