Modern filmmakers and viewers often feel the need to reinterpret old stories or legends through the prism of contemporary worldview. Sometimes such a reconciliation process shines a light on the underrepresented or hidden aspects of a historical chapter. At other times, the past simply becomes a channel to visualize or speak of contemporary takes on social issues; for instance, Ridley Scott’s #MeToo medieval drama The Last Duel (2021). Algerian filmmakers Damien Ounouri & Adila Bendimerad’s period/costume drama The Last Queen (2022) strike a balance between these two approaches. It’s set in the small Arabian-Berber republic, where liberation from the invaders looked like a possibility. And this was the era before the onslaught of the Ottoman Empire.
The Last Queen unfolds in the pristine Mediterranean port city, in the year 1516. The legend of Queen Zaphira is prevalent in Algerian history, although historians debate over her existence. However, we can’t always trust history when it comes to chronicling the lives of women. Even if Zaphira’s life story is only a legend there is a need for common people to tell such stories. The quiet rebellion, wisdom, and sufferings of Queen Zaphira definitely gain contemporary resonance, especially in a world that lionizes crooks and murderers.
The Last Queen opens in the palace courtyard with King’s wife Zaphira (Adila Bendimerad) recounting the adventurous tale of their people conquering Algiers. They sing songs, there’s delicious food, and the women are having a good time. There’s a passing remark, of course, on how the women are celebrating while Spaniards are gradually invading their lands. Zaphira tells her story to an enraptured audience. This is visually juxtaposed with the bloody battle waged by the Albanian-Greek corsair (pirate) Aruj Barbarossa (Dali Benssalah) against the mighty Spaniards. Aruj, his crude brothers, and an army of battle-hardened men are known for forming alliances and liberating Muslim kingdoms from the European invaders.
The battle-crazed Aruj loses a limb in the battle. But it takes him a while to perceive that as he slashes through a bunch of armored Spaniards guarding the beach. Zaphira loves celebrating the small things in life, she loves her kid Yahia and deep down doesn’t care much about the conquests and pillage of these proud men. The opening scene establishes that The Last Queen is about a conflict between these two wildly different individuals. In fact, at first glance, Zaphira looks anything but powerful. We might wonder what kind of influence can a woman exert in a kingdom that’s ruled by male gatekeepers and where she herself lives under the shadow of the King’s other wives? Zaphira, however, isn’t a passive bystander. She takes charge of her life and fate, though obstacles are aplenty.
King Salim Toumi (Fethi Nouri) makes an alliance with Aruj and easily overcomes their invaders. But once the battle ends, the real problems begin. Aruj and his army of bored, unruly men harbor bigger dreams of conquest. The devious pirate malevolently declares, “I will take his palace, and I will mount his horse and his wife.” Soon, the King is assassinated in the bathtub. Fearing the corsairs’ savagery, the royal women, including Queen Chegga, flee from the city. Zaphira refuses to go, and she with her son Yahia pay respects to the dead King. Subsequently, Zaphira’s audacious decision to stay garners positive attention from the people. They consider her their queen.
At the same time, it attracts the ire of men, including the ones in the King’s council. Zaphira’s brutish brother also attempts to whisky her away from Algiers, in order to uphold their family’s ‘honor’ and to get her remarried. Nevertheless, Zaphira stubbornly stays in the city and temporarily thwarts the kingdom plans of Aruj. She stalls for time as Queen Chegga reaches out to Zaphira with plans of killing the corsairs. Aruj also makes his move quickly as he asks to marry Zaphira, and calls it the only way to restore peace to Algiers.
The Last Queen is the feature film directorial debut for both Damien Ounouri & Adila Bendimerad. Franco-Algerian filmmaker Ounouri chose to film acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke for his graduation project. The short documentary Xiao Jia Going Home (2007) follows Jia’s journey back to their hometown after winning Golden Lion Award for Still Life (2006) in Venice. Subsequently, Ounouri’s first full-length documentary, Fidai (2012) was co-produced by Jia Zhangke. Ounouri’s co-director, co-writer, and co-producer for The Last Queen, Adila Bendimerad have previously worked with him in the mermaid-themed short Kindil El Bahr (2016). Their shared desire to tell the legend of Zaphira has led to this intimately crafted costume drama and that too from a country that doesn’t have much of a cinema economy.
The Last Queen is a brilliantly grounded drama that largely unfolds from the perspective of women. Visually, the narrative puts the women in the foreground, even though the social and cultural circumstances are such that they are often confined to limited space. Barriers are constantly erected to keep the women in the periphery. Zaphira quietly breaks some of the barriers. But naturally, the treachery of powerful men vows to restrict her movement. There are a lot of shades to Zaphira’s character. She is flawed, naive, compassionate, fierce, and smart. For a woman, whose fate and choices are often offset by other people and external threats, the narrative offers a well-rounded character arc of Zaphira.
Bendimerad and Ounouri showcase the casualties of men’s bloody conflicts over power: women and children. The political and social set-up persistently breaks any possibility of solidarity between women. Zaphira’s friendship with Zokha (wife of a member from King’s council) and what happens to it and Zaphira’s encounters with Astrid (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) are interesting in this context. The former slave Astrid is Aruj’s favorite mistress. Though she is a minor character, her arc was pretty well developed, and it’s devastating to witness what eventually happens to her.
The two brief combat sequences are very well staged. And moreover, the scenes comment on the inherent savagery of the act rather than stylizing it. The commanding screen presence of Adila Bendimerad and Benssalah is such a wonder to behold. At the outset, Aruj is a menacing beast designed for violence and carnage. However, the writers gradually zero in on the character’s small gestures of vulnerability and doubt. Bendimerad’s Zaphira exudes quiet determination which is perfectly antithetical to the mindless thuggery of Aruj.
Overall, The Last Queen (113 minutes) explores the underrepresented chapters of history and offers ample space for expunged perspectives and voices. It’s an intimate and gorgeously shot period piece about a complicated heroic female figure.