Cinema: Also showing - Wasted: a love, a people, the land of Algeria

L'Arche du Desert/ The Desert Ark (12) Mohammed Chouikh; 90 mins The Polish Bride (15) Karim Traidia; 90 mins The Third Man (PG) Carol Reed; 95 mins
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In the Algeria of Mohammed Chouikh's L'Arche du Desert (The Desert Ark), people belong to tribes which are distinguished chiefly by the colours of their clothing. They are passengers through life, obliged to share their patch of green in an expanse of yellow and ochre, under a flat blue sky. An oasis is a puddle in a wilderness without water; the Biblical Ark was a raft for survival in a world over-endowed with the stuff.

The film begins in a flurry of excitement, as a girl from one tribe is found in the arms of a boy from another, considered socially inferior. Thereafter, the film moves as slowly as a shadow across the desert. And its message comes as no surprise: on an ark, we support one another or die.

As in his earlier work (the 1989 film The Citadel, for example), Chouikh makes considerable demands of us. The acting - especially by Myriam Aouffen and Hacen Abdou as the Romeo and Juliet couple at the centre of the story - is unremarkable. The narrative is episodic, the style is austere. One has to adjust to the pace, to accept the foreignness of the society depicted and to be prepared not to understand everything. Then you may start to notice the touches of humour and the passion behind what is, in effect, a bitter political statement about a country that for the past 10 years has been caught up in a process of needless and bloody self-destruction.

The ending is bleak: a small child, who has been a barely-noticed presence throughout the film, announces angrily that he can no longer live with this madness. There is no doubting the sincerity of Chouikh's attempt to find a story that will express his feeling about what has been happening to his homeland. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves to listen and share what he feels. We are, after all, on this ark together.

One thing that Chouikh's work distinctly lacks is sentimentality, the over-riding quality of The Polish Bride, the debut film of Karim Traidia, an Algerian director who currently lives in the Netherlands. It arrives as overloaded with awards as a Soviet general at a May Day parade: Golden Globe, Grand Rail d'Or, Prix Europa, a couple of Golden Calves. Easy on the eye and on the mind, it seems determined at all costs to ingratiate itself with its audience.

The opening sequence shows a young woman running through the streets of a Dutch town at night in the rain, wearing only a raincoat; she has a wound on the side of her head. She is still running when she reaches the open countryside, though no one appears to be in pursuit. We learn that she is Anna (Monic Hendrickx), a Polish woman who has been lured to Holland by the promise of work and then forced into prostitution (which is, presumably, supposed to explain the absence of clothes).

Still running, she eventually collapses on reaching the farm belonging to Henk (Jaap Spijkers), a dour Dutchman who picks her up and dumps her on the bed in his spare room. Henk has no living relatives. Nor apparently, has he any friends, except the dog to whom he might have to explain this sudden addition to his household. Anna starts to learn Dutch; but for what seems like months, the pair stomp around, not so much living together as inhabiting the same space, exchanging monosyllabic grunts and furtive glances in what seems more like the prelude to a petition for divorce than the start of a love-affair.

Don't worry: love will triumph. The white-slavers, still on Anna's trail, will be dealt with; there will be a thunderstorm to signal the consummation of the affair and a song by Ede Staal, the Dutch Jacques Brel, to celebrate the landscapes of the Dutch Hogeland (just in case we had failed to appreciate the camera's seductive embrace of these wide-open spaces). The film's sentimentality lies precisely in the sacrifice of consistency or plausibility in this plot, for the sake of giving us a sense of well-being that is shallow and short-lived.

Treat of the week is the re-release of The Third Man in a beautifully clean print, re-edited to restore a total of some 11 minutes - mainly in the form of a few frames cut from the end of shots, and other details omitted or changed in the American version. After 50 years, it still looks wonderful. Of course, you may find that Carol Reed overdoes the expressionistic camera angles; but this is no new discovery. When his friend and fellow-director William Wyler saw the film, he offered Reed a spirit level to put on the camera next time he directed a film.

With all due respect to Wyler, however, the visual language of the film is not merely decorative. It also serves to convey the disorientation felt by the innocent, utterly straightforward American, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) in the crooked, looking-glass world of post-war Vienna. Holly, who writes novels about the Wild West, will have to learn afresh to distinguish the good guys from the bad; he will betray his best friend. He is constantly looking up or down, peering into darkness or round corners. The angle of vision is crucial.

The Third Man is also a political allegory. As Harry Lime, Orson Welles is all the more persuasive as a symbolic figure in that he appears so rarely on screen, while being present from the first moment to the last as a figure, a myth, an idea, elusive, amoral, sought after and hunted down, hated and loved: the personification of an evil ideology with a seductive face. And it is for an abstraction that Holly is prepared, ultimately, to betray him: for an idea of humanity and justice.

After which, both the writer, Graham Greene, and the producer, David O Selznick, wanted a happy ending in the graveyard; but Reed resisted, and rightly so. Only a naive American could expect to sell his best friend and then get the girl. So the film denied the audience that little satisfaction and gave it, instead, a great work of art.

Antonia Quirke returns next week