• Roschdy Zem stars in ‘Savages’. (SBS)Source: SBS
A political thriller crossed with a Shakespearean family drama that lifts the lid on the cultural divide tearing France apart? Strap yourself in for ‘Savages’.
Anthony Morris

11 Sep 2020 - 9:14 AM  UPDATED 11 Sep 2020 - 9:14 AM

Savages begins with the kind of what-if scenario that in 2020 feels like it could only end in violence: What if a man of Algerian descent became the President of France?

Savages might base its fictional President in Obama-era optimism, but it doesn’t shy away from the darkness that kind of leader stirs up in some, making what happens to new French President Idder Chaouch (Roschdy Zem) feel grimly inevitable. But in the aftermath, Savages asks an even more interesting question: What next?

For much of France, Chaouch is a symbol of hope and progress, a man who presents them with a chance to embrace a post-racial future. For those opposed to a socialist candidate of Algerian origin, he’s a dangerous threat to their way of life. As the election results come in, these two worlds collide: at the moment of victory, an attempt is made on his life, leaving him in a coma.

Immediately, suspicion falls close to home. It turns out the would-be assassin is linked to Fouad (Dali Benssalah, soon to be seen in the upcoming James Bond film No Time to Die), fiancé of the President’s daughter and campaign manager Jasmine (Souheila Yacoub). He’s quickly cast out of the inner circle, his relationship torn apart as he goes from chosen one to terrorism suspect, from a glitzy celebration to the back of a police van.

Determined to regain what he’s lost – or even to just find out why his life has been ruined – he starts his own investigation into what happened, heading home to his native Saint-Étienne to dig into his family’s connection to the attack. Back in Paris, the President’s head of security Marion (Marina Foïs) is just as keen as Fouad to find out what’s really going on. After all, it doesn’t exactly look good for her that an assassin came close to killing the President on her watch. If she can get Fouad to find out the truth, so much the better for her.

Based on the best-selling four-novel saga by Sabri Louatah (who co-wrote this adaptation), this six-part series hits the ground running and rarely pauses; it’s no accident that our introduction to Fouad comes when he’s desperately running across a park to try and catch a taxi. Much of the first episode cuts between a wedding at Saint-Étienne and the final Presidential debate, quickly bringing us up to speed on the large cast and what’s at stake for each and every one of them.

It’s also a look at two families from similar backgrounds who have found themselves on very different paths. For the Chaouch family, France has given them the chance to rise to the very top, becoming part of the Parisian elite. For them, the promise of social mobility held out to second-generation immigrants has been fulfilled, but at a price: many from their community see them as having sold out their Algerian past, turning their backs on where they came from.

Fouad’s family, the Nerrouche, haven’t risen so high. Firmly middle class and provincial, they remain torn between tradition and opportunity. Fouad’s relationship with Jasmine was real, but it was also his ticket to a better life. Without it he’s cast back down into a world he’s been desperate to escape – a world symbolised by his charming, radicalised older brother and the prime suspect behind the attack, Nazir (rapper Sofiane Zermani).

It may have a political conscience, but Savages is a thriller first and foremost. There are ticking bombs and prison escapes, a concealed cancer diagnosis and a young couple torn apart by their families. Even Chaouch’s victory might be short-lived; a President in a coma might mean new elections. But throughout all the twists and turns, politics are never far from Savages’ mind; with its vision of a country divided, this thriller has something to say about the state of France today.

On the one side, there are those pushed to the fringes of society who find hope and solace in radical political and extremist attitudes; on the other, the so-called mainstream that’s eager to demonise foreigners. It’s this divide that Savages seeks to examine, the gulf between rich and poor, the city and the countryside, those immigrants the country has accepted and those the country still sees as alien.

In the political debate that clinches his run for the Presidency, Chaouch says “Vengeance is suicide”. It’s a statement that hangs over the series: will France find a way to unite across the divide and look to the future, or will old grievances tear it apart?

Season 1 of Savages is now streaming at SBS On Demand:


Follow the author here: @morrbeat

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