Nefta Football Club (The Oscars)

By Yves Piat | Comedy
2 brothers discover a donkey wearing headphones in the desert.

A donkey wearing headphones — yes, headphones — wanders the desert that separates Tunisia from Algeria. Loaded with bags of special cargo, it is awaited by an “odd couple” pair of smugglers.

But before they can intercept the donkey, two young brothers encounter it when they stop for a break on a journey through the desert. From that point, the donkey’s special cargo ends up going on a strange odyssey of its own, ending up in the unlikeliest of places.

Writer-director Yves Piat’s short gem of a film — nominated for the best live-action short Oscar and shortlisted for a Cesar as well — has the appearance of a dramatic thriller, whether it’s in the story’s initial premise or the beautifully textured but gritty cinematography. Its writing and acting stay on the muted, naturalistic side as well, capturing the tensions, rhythms and clashing perspectives of its characters’ distinctive personalities. Taking full advantage of the strikingly cinematic setting of the Northern African desert, there’s a sense of faithful authentic detail to the place and its inhabitants, from the hard-scrabble work they do to their intense love of soccer.

Despite the initial impressions of the film, eventually, the narrative reveals itself to be a warm, wry comedy of errors, with a farcical chain of events resulting from a growing pile of misunderstandings and hilarious mix-ups. An early clue is the writing, with its ear for ironies, jokes and the bickering that results from colliding personalities.

But the performances never overplay their hand, either, prizing instead an underplayed, subtle repartee and rapport. Actors Lyes Salem and Hichem Mesbah play the mismatched pair of smugglers with equal parts consternation and exasperation, while young performers Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari play a believable pair of bantering young brothers, with one dominating and enterprising and the other an archetypal tag-along who wants to keep up but is much more innocent.

It’s this innocence that proved the fulcrum for the final, gloriously ironic joke in “Nefta Football Club,” punctuated by an image that offers a sense of the full scope of its humor. It also makes for a sly crowd-pleaser of an ending, as well as a story that is a true journey: one that travels for some time with relatable, fascinating characters in a unique place, but ends up somewhere refreshingly unexpected — and proving perhaps that innocence is a force and power to be reckoned with, especially in a world where we presume the worst.

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