The Imperialists Are Still Alive! (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Somewhere deep inside “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!,” written and directed by Zeina Durra, is a well-meaning commentary about the effects of war on the lives of immigrants living in America. Instead, for the most part, it sandwiches emotions that should be taken seriously, like the fear of losing a loved one from bombings, kidnappings, and violence, between comedic, ironic, or satirical situations. While this bold approach might have worked with a profound screenplay as well as a confident and focused direction, it is clear that such is not the case here. What results is a mishmash of tone and techniques, often mistaking cinéma vérité for meandering bore.
Asya (Élodie Bouchez) is a conceptual artist whose father is Jordanian-Lebanese and mother is Bosnian-Palestinian. She is from Paris but she is connected to her cultures. When she meets Javier (José María de Tavira), a Mexican lawyer in the process of completing his Ph.D. in Medieval Law, while leaving a party, they do not exactly start on the same page but they end up sleeping on the same bed.
I did not know what to make of the romance. Bouchez and de Tavira look good together, but the romance shared between their characters does not go anywhere interesting. Perhaps this is because we never get the chance to get to know them as separate people. Aside from their ethnicities and what they do, not once do we get to experience the essence of their inner sanctums. While they walk around the streets of New York City, there is a lack of tension or danger—in their minds, with each other, and among the diverse people they encounter. It is never a good sign when you notice the characters’ wardrobes and start questioning how they manage to afford what they have on when it appears that they do not have stable jobs. I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area but I imagine the living cost in NYC is not cheap.
There are a few scenes that are savagely funny, intentional or accidental. The one that easily comes to mind is an early scene that takes place in the women’s restroom. Tatiana (Karolina Muller) has locked herself in one of the stalls. She is crying and inconsolable because she has received news that a friend is taken into a rendition aircraft whilst on a commercial flight. While the girls console their friend, the camera cuts to a restroom attendant who seems to be on the verge of laughter.
That woman caught my attention because if I were in her shoes, I probably would have had the same reaction. I think that there is something funny, ludicrous about individuals who cannot get a grip on their emotions in a public place. If it really is that personal, at least find a secluded spot. Otherwise, it appears as though one is putting on a show.
When the material takes a jab on a sort of hipster lifestyle, it works. There is a sequence involving Asya’s group of friends, presumably rich or who have parents that are rich, visiting a bar that is highly exclusive—hidden at the back of a poorly-lit Chinese restaurant—only to take one drink and leave just as quickly. I found it amusing because the taxi ride to get there took a whole lot more time than the group spending time with their drinks. As one gets up to leave, the others follow like sheep. A “regular” person, like myself, would have said something like, “Why are we leaving already?”
But the movie is not a comedy. In a way, scenes that are supposed to be deadly serious, such as Asya being in a state of constant anxiety for not knowing if her brother is still alive, are cheapened because there is a lack of transition between comedy and drama. There should have been more telephone conversations between Asya and her brother. We do not see his face but we can image what is all around him. The other line tells a story with just sounds: explosions, trucks, and panic. It is stunning that we spend the entire film with Asya but, for the most part, it is a whole lot of nothing.