The milk of human kindness

"La Vache" is a charming, feel-good film.

‘La Vache’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘La Vache’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you’ve ever longed to see a feel-good road movie about a man bringing a prize cow from Algeria to Paris, your wait is over.
Mohamed Hamidi’s La Vache (its English title is the overly literal One Man and His Cow) is a charming, old-fashioned story that, at its best, recalls the classic Hollywood road comedies, in the Frank Capra mode. Are there surprises along the way? No, not really. Will you enjoy the trip anyway? If you’re not too cynical, it’s quite likely that you will. This is the kind of gentle comedy where even the bad guys are not really that bad, which used to be a mainstay of movies.
Fatah (Fatsah Bouyahmed) is a nebbish who lives in a small village in Algeria, where he gets pushed around by Naima (Hajar Masdouki), the strong-willed, beautiful wife he adores but fears, and he dotes on his two young daughters. But the one in whom he confides, the one he feels most comfortable with, is his prize cow, Jacqueline. If ever a cow could act, it’s this one. Fatah has always dreamed of entering her in the agricultural fair in Paris, and finally he gets invited to go.
This opportunity exposes the different ways the villagers relate to the outside world and to Western culture in general. Some encourage him, wishing that they could go, too, while others caution that he will be corrupted by the experience.
Obviously, he goes, and it’s a daunting journey. You can’t Fedex a cow, so they take a boat to Marseilles, and he plans to walk all the way to Paris. The movie really hits its stride once he and Jacqueline are on French country roads. Wherever they go, they meet people who are kindly and eccentric. And although Fatah is far from home, the villagers get to follow his every move through social media.
Thinking he is drinking pear juice, he gets drunk and is photographed in what looks like an embrace with a woman.
Naturally, he worries about what will happen when he heads back home. But no matter how he feels, he still has to get Jacqueline to Paris.
There are various subplots along the way, notably when he stops to watch an antigovernment demonstration and gets arrested. Some French people express anti-Muslim feelings, but Fatah’s charm resolves that pretty quickly. This movie doesn’t really have much to say about politics; the closest it gets to political commentary is to show that his Algerian small town is much the same as the French small towns he stops in – i.e., that everyone and every place is basically the same.
A movie like this rises or falls on the performances, and in Fatsah Bouyahmed, the director found the perfect actor to embody Fatah’s sweetness. Bouyahmed is a combination of a stand-up comedian and a modern-day Chaplin. I could believe in his simplicity and modesty without finding him cloying, quite a feat.
In addition to Bouyahmed, La Vache makes good use of some of the best supporting actors in France. Britain has always been known for its character actors, but France has some terrific ones, too.
Lambert Wilson, an extremely handsome man, often gets fairly dull leading-man roles. Here, he has the chance to be a bit quirkier in the role of the debt-ridden aristocrat who helps Fatah realize his dreams. Jamel Debbouze, who plays Fatah’s brother-in-law, an Algerian who is proud of the life he has made for himself but who also tries to hide it from his family back home, brings real conviction to the part.
And, of course, Jacqueline the cow steals most of her scenes.
La Vache is beautifully photographed, and both its Algerian and French locations look so lovely that it would be a shame to see the film anywhere other than in a theater.