BrewDogging #49: Seven Dials
BrewDogging #50: Reading

Monoglot Movie Club: I Was Misinformed

You can't see it here, but just off the right edge of the photo is a woman staring at the guy with a look of disgust. And she's carrying a placard reading 'TRADITIONAL ISLAMIC ATTITUDES TO PROMISCUITY'.Renault: And what in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.

There's a certain inevitability to this. Last month, you'll remember, I editorially steered the good ship MostlyFilm into its final port of call. As part of its climactic week-and-a-bit of wonders, I contributed the last episode in the long-running feature Monoglot Movie Club, while suggesting that it could possibly return in some form or other on this site.

In the six weeks that followed the publication of that article, I would end up visiting seven different countries (okay, one of them was Scotland, but still). Three of them would be countries I'd never been to before, and I would see a film at the cinema in all three. So, yeah, Monoglot Movie Club is definitely returning here, to the extent that it's now got its own category in the right-hand sidebar. (The category includes earlier travel posts that contain movie reviews, as well as the Red Button Bonus Material pieces for the MostlyFilm series.)

First stop on this mini-world tour: as they used to say, We're Off On The Road To Morocco.

Somewhere out there is a book whose dedication reads: "to The Belated Birthday Girl, the best possible travelling companion across four continents. (Just one more to go, then.)" I'm old-fashioned enough to still think of there only being five continents (and yes, of course Pluto's a fucking planet), and for several dozen years Africa is the one that's eluded me. But thanks to a work trip to Casablanca, I can now tick that one off the list (with the caveat that I really should go back there with The BBG for completeness' sake at some point).

Of course, I say I was working in Casablanca, but you know what these things are like: I was actually working on an industrial park several miles out from the centre of town. Even the term 'industrial park' doesn't quite get across how isolated this place was from the rest of the city - it was more like a cross between a university campus and a gated community, with security gates at every entrance to the complex, which encompassed several dozen offices as well as a hotel. It made for a nice relaxed ten-minute stroll from the hotel to work every day, the only downside being the feral cats that wandered the streets and occasionally got into fights with each other. But just popping outside the campus at lunchtime to grab a bite made you aware of how you were trapped inside a bubble that was totally unlike the rest of the city, and it was sometimes hard to escape that bubble's gravitational pull.

Still, on a couple of nights I managed it. Casablanca does have a decent tram service in and out of the city centre, but the nearest station was so far away from my hotel that you had to get a cab to reach it, which feels somewhat self-defeating. The taxi system in the city is actually not too bad, once you get your head around the unique way in which it works. There are two different types of cab: big and white (grand taxis), and small and red (petit taxis). The grand taxis operate more like buses, waiting around at big locations like hotels for enough people going the same way before they'll head off. The petit taxis can be flagged down on the street, but are shareable: they'll stop to pick up other people on the way until the car's full. If you're in a good one, they'll have an ingenious heads-up display that allows the driver to maintain independent meters for each passenger based on how far they've travelled: if you're in a dodgy one, they'll shrug and tell you the meter's broken, and it's down to you to negotiate a fare, ideally before the start of the journey. The petit taxis reminded me very much of my taxi experiences in Shenzhen, thanks to the colour of the cars, the recklessness of the drivers, and the lack of seat belts on the passenger side.

On one of my two nights out, I just headed for the centre and had a good wander round: on that particular night, the main entertainment to be had was looking through the windows of cafes and seeing dozens of men sitting in rows watching Chelsea get thrashed by Barcelona. (Some pleasures are universal, I guess.) But on the other night, I had a specific destination in mind: the Megarama cinema, Casablanca's primary multiplex. Moroccan cinema is a bit of a blindspot for me, I must admit: all too often, my experiences of the country are filtered through foreign filmmakers using it as an exotic backdrop, from Bogie and Bergman onwards. (I got into a discussion about Morocco in cinema with one of my work colleagues for the week, and he was struggling to recall a film he'd seen with Kate Winslet set in Marrakesh. "Can you remember that one?" he asked me. Yes, I could, but I feigned ignorance because I wasn't sure if an office in an Islamic country was the right environment to be discussing a film called Hideous Kinky.)

Razzia, however, is a proper Moroccan film. And it's a perfect candidate for Monoglot Movie Club, because no fewer than four languages are spoken in it. The two primary ones are Arabic and French, the main languages spoken in the country: all foreign films shown here tend to get subtitled in both. (I got some entertainment from the trailers at the start of the programme, when they showed the one for Isle Of Dogs: all of its onscreen text is already in English and Japanese, and the Moroccan variant layers Arabic and French subs on top of those until the screen reminds you of what Supreme Master TV used to look like.)  

Razzia, set largely in Casablanca itself, has its characters flit interchangeably between the two languages: so when they speak French we get Arabic subtitles, and vice versa. We also get a bit of English in there, as two of the characters have opportunistically built a Casablanca theme bar in the city and frequently quote from it. But in an extended prologue, we get a fourth language, one which turns out to be a major plot point in the film. We start in the early 80s, where we're introduced to schoolteacher Abdallah (Amine Ennaji) working in the Moroccan mountains. He's perfectly happy until the Muslim Ofsted come around and lean on him for teaching in the local Berberan dialect, rather than 'the language of the Koran'. When his school is closed down without warning, he panics and decides to move on. Flash forward to 2015, when we meet some of the people that he left behind: former pupils Ilyas (Abdellah Didane) and Joe (Arieh Worthalter) have put aside their sectarian differences to co-run that tourist trap bar in Casablanca, while Ilyas' mum Yto (Nezah Tebbai) is still pining for Abdallah.

But then other characters are thrown in. Some are distantly connected to Abdallah, like Salima (co-writer Maryam Touzani), the flirty woman who seeks abortion advice from Yto: others are less so, like the Freddie Mercury fan Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid), or young Ines (Dounia Binebine) trying to work out what sort of woman she wants to be. All of this takes place against a backdrop of Casablanca in flames, as disgruntled citizens are rioting in the streets. (You know the thrill you get when you walk out of a cinema and find you're standing in the area where the film you've just watched took place? It was a little more nervy in this instance.)

As director and co-writer Nabil Ayouch slaps all these plotlines into each other, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that we're watching a Moroccan version of Crash. It's nowhere near as hamfisted as that, I grant you, but it's well on its way: its multiple storylines never really cohere, working on the assumption that merely having some of the characters turn up in the same location counts as an ending. It also feels unnecessarily pleased with itself at the way it ticks off the big issues - abortion, homosexuality, anti-semitism - and tries a bit too hard to show off how it's tackling Adult Themes. (I believe this is the first film I've ever seen which dedicates an entire scene to a woman inserting a tampon.) Of course, I don't know much about Moroccan cinema, so I have to consider the possibility that this is genuinely radical material to present to a local audience: but to me it all feels a bit hackneyed.

Visually, it has to be said, it's rather terrific. The imagery covers a huge dynamic range, from the beautiful early scenes in the mountains to the stark street-lit shots of the riots at the climax. Ayouch also pulls off some inspired coups, such as a sequence of Salima putting on her makeup which turns out to be something else altogether. But you have to keep coming back to the stories that these images are telling, and in this untranslated form they don't really hang together. It all feels like a state of the nation treatise for a nation I don't really know. Maybe I should see some more Moroccan films and do something about that.


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