Credit: Sarah Sobol/Film at Lincoln Center
by Brad Hanford Featured Film

The Temple Woods Gang — Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche

March 6, 2024

Death hangs over the first moments of The Temple Woods Gang, the riveting seventh feature from French-Algerian filmmaker Rabah Ameur-Zaimëche. Grizzled military retiree Pons (Régis Laroche) looks out from his apartment balcony in a Paris banlieue, one of the low-income, immigrant-focused housing projects that have often served as the setting for the director’s work, awaiting the ambulance that will retrieve his mother’s dead body. What follows is likewise structured as a series of appointments with death, as the forces that doom the film’s eponymous group of friends (raised, partly by Pons’ mother, in the Temple Woods project) are set in motion well before the film’s start.

Ameur-Zaimëche’s films have long examined the race- and class-based stratification of French society through a rigorously materialist outsider lens, and The Temple Woods Gang applies that perspective to a relatively straightforward crime thriller framework. The plot follows Bébé (Philippe Petit) and the rest of the gang as they plan and execute a highway robbery of a van owned by a powerful Saudi prince (Mohamed Aroussi), transporting large sums of cash and other valuables. The heist goes smoothly enough, but it’s only so long until the vast asymmetry of resources and ruthlessness between the two sides asserts itself. The prince and his contemptible American lackey (Lucius Barre) enlist a mysterious operator named Jim (Slimane Dazi) to track down the culprits, intent on making an example of what happens when the poor take class warfare into their own hands, while Pons stands with a watchful eye just outside the action.

As often with Ameur-Zaimëche, the film withholds many key details of plot and character in favor of a total immersion in its characters’ everyday environment. The gang’s past criminal activity, Pons’ backstory, and Jim’s methods of hunting them remain vague, but the scenes of Bébé and friends busting each other’s chops at the garage carry a rich sense of place and personal history. The film portrays these people, who would be so easily dismissed as violent criminals deserving of their fate in essentially any Western country, with all the conviviality and generosity that comes from a lifetime of communal support. It’s all the more horrifying, then, when the brutal violence that awaits them invades these spaces.

The Temple Woods Gang is largely a study in visual and spatial juxtapositions, something it announces in its opening pan from the banlieue to the distant, prosperous city center. The intimate working-class environs Bébé moves through sit alongside the empty, cavernous halls of power in which the prince plots his revenge, as alone in his visual frames as the gang is united within theirs. Jim and Pons double each other as the gang’s avenging and guardian angels respectively, opposing avatars of France’s history of colonial violence. Ameur-Zaimëche has never been given over to subtlety, and some moments — like a cut from one character futilely circling a prison yard to the elegant gallop of the prince’s racehorse — spell out the point in no uncertain terms. And yet it’s the contrast in the film’s larger construction, between surfaces raw enough to feel like Maurice Pialat on one of his lighter days and the strings of its overarching genre design, that leave the strongest impression. What could be a conventional genre script adorned with easy ironies and class condescension finds a genuinely political formal approach.

Marked as it is by death and despair, The Temple Woods Gang remains remarkably attuned to the small joys of life. Its last moments also find Pons looking out from a balcony, this time observing some young children at play. Life doesn’t go on for everyone, but the work continues for the rest of us.

Originally published as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2024.