The Mosque -- Film Review

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SAN SEBASTIAN -- Working a nice premise in the most predictable direction, writer-director Daoud Aoulad-Syad's "The Mosque" never really gets its story off the ground. A Moroccan farmer's livelihood is challenged when villagers start to worship in a "mosque" constructed on his land as a film set. The simple, oft-repeated idea behind this French-Moroccan co-production may appeal to local audiences who like their movies ultra-comprehensible. For more sophisticated viewers this is tough trekking.

In the style of early, is-it-a-doc Kiarostami, the film opens on filmmaker Aoulad-Syad driving his big black jeep into a dusty desert village, looking for the non-pro actors who worked on his last film, "Waiting for Pasolini." The elderly-looking farmer Moha (Abdelhadi Touhrach), whose land was rented for the film, complains that all the sets have been struck except the mosque facade. The villagers have begun praying in it, and refuse to tear it down.

The director leaves him to his misery. Poor Moha spends the rest of the film trying to get his farmland back. He irritates everyone, from his wife (who is herself obsessed with their son's circumcision) to the authorities. The audience, too, tires of his crusade long before the end credits are in sight.

Despite its exasperating repetition, the script has two very nice things about it. One is the character of a sleazy, self-styled "imam" who rushes in to lead prayers in the "mosque"; he is also interested in charging tourists for visits and making deals with political candidates at election time.

This disreputable opportunist is contrasted to the serious, gaunt Sellam (Salem Dabella), a "real" imam, who has studied theology with the experts. Because he "speaks the truth" and doesn't play ball with the authorities, he's relegated to running the cemetery. He is the only one who sides with Moha, pointing out that the film set doesn't even face Mecca.

The other good point about "The Mosque" is its unforeseen ending. Coming on the heels of a comical scene about a TV crew taping village color, its downbeat punch is a powerful indictment of the lack of freedom of speech.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (In Competition)
Production companies: Les Films du Sud, Chinguitty Films
Cast: Abdelhadi Touhrach, Bouchra Hraich, Mustapha Tahtah, Naceur Oujri, Salem Dabella
Director: Daoud Aoulad-Syad
Screenwriter: Daoud Aoulad-Syad
Producer: Cecile Rubrecht
Director of photography: Thierry Lebigre
Music: Acquallal
Costumes: Assia Ismaili
No rating, 85 minutes
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