Review: Isabelle Adjani lights up ‘Sisters,’ a fierce drama about a French Algerian family

Three women on a city street in the movie "Sisters."
Maïwenn, from left, Isabelle Adjani and Rachida Brakni in the movie “Sisters.”
(John Waxxx / Distrib Films US)

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In Yamina Benguigui’s drama “Sisters,” about three generations of French Algerian women, the bonds of family seem forever strained by national identities and wounds specific to these tensions. When grown sisters Zorah (Isabelle Adjani), Djamila (Rachida Brakni) and Nohra (Maïwenn) come together with their mother (Fattouma Bouamari) in Paris, no matter the occasion, it’s always a painfully incomplete gathering: their younger brother, Rheda, was kidnapped by their father years ago during the war with Algeria, to be raised in the newly decolonized nation. His whereabouts are unknown to them.

This trauma is made newly vivid when Zorah, a playwright, decides to stage a new work about their family, casting her own daughter as their mom, a freedom fighter turned victim to an abusive husband whose abduction scheme took advantage of patriarchal Algerian laws. With their haunted past stirred up again, Djamila, a local politician, and itinerant Nohra — who struggles to hold a job — feel blindsided and angry over a family secret being spilled.


Benguigui, herself French Algerian and the maker of several documentaries, isn’t shy about depicting the emotional turmoil and blurred edges of reliving the past through art. Violent flashbacks interrupt the present, humor and anger share space, and we see rehearsed scenes from the play, with Rachid Djaidani doing double duty (and vividly) as both their volatile dad in flashbacks and the sensitive actor playing him for Zorah.

As messy (and even physical) as the family’s exchanges can get, Benguigui always has the sisters’ inherent solidarity in mind. But it’s still a jarring mix of tones to contend with, and the many narrative strands — which include a trip to Algeria — aren’t all satisfactorily resolved. There’s also the sense that Djamila and Nohra get short shrift, with so much screen time afforded the movie’s biggest star. But “Sisters” is better, anyway, when the ever-compelling Adjani’s high-wattage gifts are focused on Zorah’s struggle as a mother, sibling, daughter of immigrants, and artist.


In French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 29, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles