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“A powerless person is to be crushed without pity,” sneers one of the many villainous establishment figures in A Mile in My Shoes, a theme which writer-director Said Khallaf then proceeds to illustrate in the most thumpingly obvious terms. Again and again and again. Set in contemporary Casablanca, Morocco’s official entry in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film is a heavy-handed social drama about an impoverished petty criminal struggling to be a good man in a bad world.
The Canada-based Khallaf’s scathing portrait of his homeland’s rotten, unequal system is low on psychological depth or dramatic originality. But it does boast strong performances and a glossy technical polish, plus some unorthodox stylistic flourishes that elevate it above the standard grammar of social realism. A Mile in My Shoes has already picked up a handful of prizes on the international film festival circuit, which is where overseas audiences are most likely to catch it in the future.
Our antihero is Said (Amine Ennaji), a serial offender fingered as the chief suspect following a late-night sexual assault on Maryam (Meryam Bakouche), wife of high-ranking police officer Hassan (Mohamed Ayad). We already know Said is a ruthless street hoodlum with his own mini-crew of muggers and burglars, but is he capable of a diabolical crime like rape? Or have the police just rounded up the usual suspects? This is Casablanca, after all.
Intercutting the main plotline with flashbacks, Khallaf maps out Said’s journey from vulnerable child to vengeful, volatile adult. Steps along the way include family tragedy, an abusive stepfather, a bruising early initiation into teenage gangs, a failed bid at holding down legitimate jobs with creepy bosses, an inevitable spell in prison, and a brutal feud with a bestial crime lord named Namroud (Othmane Lghafy).
But Said is no irredeemable monster. Though he may be a violent hothead in public, in private he is an emotionally scarred orphan who remains obsessively attached to his childhood toys. He is also tender and protective toward his elderly landlady Aunty (Rawia) and his lifelong partner in crime, Mostafa (Mohamed Hmimsa). After romance blossoms with his pretty neighbor Hanane (Sanaa Bahaj), he even dreams of finally proving himself as a devoted husband and father. But his long record of crimes and misdemeanors keeps sabotaging his good intentions.
A Mile in My Shoes is not a nuanced piece of storytelling. Khallaf loads the dice in every scene, repeatedly painting Said as a misunderstood victim of a cruel, nakedly unjust society. Bizarrely, almost every male nemesis he confronts throughout his life is a sexually ambivalent predator who tries to rape him. Maybe male-on-male sexual assault is a major social problem in Morocco, but this recurring motif soon starts to feel like an unsavory personal fixation. If viewers are in any doubt where our sympathies are being directed, Mohamed Oussama’s syrupy, wheedling, over-intrusive score serves as a giant musical signpost. When the finale comes, even Said’s police interrogator is weeping for this lost little boy. Subtle as a Donald Trump speech.
That said, Khallaf’s heart-tugging drama has some saving graces. Chief among them is Ennaji’s magnetic screen presence, his performance a study in wounded pride and unvocalized rage, his brooding jolie-laide good looks strongly reminiscent of Benicio Del Toro at times. Also impressive are the non-naturalistic flashback vignettes, which re-create Said’s childhood on a starkly lit stage in the mannered, minimalist style of classical Greek tragedy. These formal digressions suggest Khallaf has something more heightened in mind than straight realism, which at least helps explain the melodramatic tone elsewhere. An interesting film, for all its flaws, though by the end it feels like we have walked 100 miles in Said’s shoes, not just one.
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