South Terminal is a raw and unflinching view of totalitarian rule

In the United States, the current political climate has caused many observers to sound alarm about the erosion of democratic norms and institutions. Some commentators have, somewhat recklessly, perhaps, even suggested that the United States may be on a path to a second civil war. Whether this is true or political hyperbole is outside of the scope of this review. But, if the tired old cliché is true and history does actually repeat itself, films like South Terminal have the potential to serve as a warning of things to come.

In this French-Algerian drama, viewers are given a raw and unflinching view of totalitarian rule through the eyes of a doctor. Though, as other critics have noted, this film resembles the Algerian Civil War, it transcends the strictures of the historical war drama. Instead, the film focuses on a more conceptual portrayal of totalitarianism. By only vaguely approximating the events of a specific war, viewers must instead come to terms with the intensely personal consequences of absolute power on the people of a given society. This film offers viewers a glimpse of sociopolitical trauma inflicted at a societal scale. Such a message applies broadly to groups of people everywhere regardless of the time and place in which they live.

While the ambiguity of the sociopolitical context adds an aura of tension to the otherwise simple narrative, the ambiguity of the interpersonal context in which the doctor operates does the opposite in almost equal measure. The drama of the narrative might have been given more of an emotional impact if we had more of a reason to become invested in who the nameless doctor actually is, both personally and professionally. Implied from several scenes is the doctor’s principled commitment to his patients, but this seems mostly like a footnote. Likewise, there is little emotional resonance in the few scenes that portray the effects of the war on the doctor’s relationship to his wife. Although we come to learn that the doctor and his wife disagree on how to respond to their circumstances, the plot does not linger on that tension for long. Ramzy Bedia’s performance excels when the narrative calls for a dispassionate demeanor in the face of adversity, but it is relatively muted when the narrative calls for greater emotional engagement. It can be argued, however, that a realistic portrayal of intense trauma probably should favor numbness over exaggerated emotion. For that reason, Bedia’s performance is mostly satisfying for me.

Overall, this film depicts brutality and oppression in a compelling manner. The admittedly minimalistic narrative seems to serve an artistic purpose, which it mostly achieves. Additionally, the Swedish folk song that bookends the film is beautiful. This is a film worth watching and is now showing on Mubi, a streaming service for cinephiles.