A North African rent-controlled banlieu outside Paris is a not-quite-slapstick battleground for cops, immigrants, a fundamentalist Muslim little Caesar, and a cuddly rap group in 100% Arabica. The film works as a B musical consecrated to Rai (a polyglot North African music smelted with Western rap) and not much else. Rachid and Krimo (real-life singers Khaled and Cheb Mami) lead Rap Oriental, a local group that soothes, amps, and grooves said hood, while a prickly, waddling Holy Roller named Slimane greases up the mayor with guarantees of community submission and shakes down local merchants for tithes. Above all, the ban on music and dancing, defied by seemingly 99 percent of the town, must be maintained, in order to assure both the bureaucratic French mayorship and the Muslim that crime is down.
The slight story, broadly and declaratively played, consists of various joyful takes on petty ghetto delinquency (stripping cars for spare parts and bootlegging music seem to be the dominant modes). The whizzy opening shots of three rollerblading punks—slashing their way through Parisian boulevardiers and eventually ditching a police blockade with a searing jump—are about as adventurous, visually and otherwise, as the film gets.
Curiously, most of the Rai/rap tunes in 100% Arabica are not subtitled, leaving the viewer to register the music’s antiauthoritarian stance purely on the basis of its community populism (i.e., that it empties out Slimane’s uptight and evil mosque). Rachid’s swaying, raspy warbling agreeably contrasts with Krimo’s sweeter, near-crooning balladeer style; their songs, the movie’s strength, are barely enough to subsume the mostly glazed, one-note acting. A kindlier La Haine crossed with a world-music retread of Vanilla Ice’s film debut, Cool as Ice, 100% Arabica is best taken lightly, according to its own advice: “This a neighborhood party, not a circumcision.”