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A lonely, arid hill topped by a lonely, barren tree. It is easily recognizable and therefore the perfect place for a Moroccan thief to hurriedly bury his loot. He makes the spot look like a lone grave so he’ll be able to locate it with even more certainty later — a smart move, as police sirens can already be heard while he’s still shoveling dust and dirt.
This is the promising start of the diverting first feature The Unknown Saint (Le Miracle du Saint Inconnu/Sid El Majhoul) from writer-director Alaa Eddine Aljem. A combination of bone-dry comedy and light drama, this is an absurdist tale about superstitions, beliefs and just plain bad luck that audiences at festivals will appreciate for its humor but that might be just a little too undernourished for more than niche theatrical action. It premiered in Cannes in the Critics’ Week and is one of two debuts from Morocco in Cannes this year. The other, Adam from Maryam Tourzani, bows in Un Certain Regard.
The film proper kicks off after the release from jail of the unnamed offender (Younes Bouab), simply called “the thief” in the credits. He immediately travels back to the hill in question. But the grave that, from the locals’ point of view, suddenly turned up overnight, has in the meantime become a place of pilgrimage. What’s worse, a padlocked and guarded shrine has appeared over the pile of stones that marked the place of burial of this “unknown saint.” The robber has no other choice but to check into a local inn — even though he’s broke — to try and figure out how he can get his money back.
Though the film’s narrative style could be described as sparse or pared back, the screenplay, also by Aljem, doesn’t only follow the robber and his dimwit accomplice, ironically nicknamed “the Brain” (Salah Bensalah), but also several others. They are spread between the new village, which has sprung up close to the pilgrimage site to profit from the new influx of visitors, and an ancestral outpost. The slow death of the latter might be accelerated by the departure of people like Hassan (Bouchaib Essamak), an enterprising young man whose elderly father (Mohamed Naimaine) still hopes for rainfall after a decade of drought.
Another complicated father-son relationship is the one between the self-appointed guard of the shrine, Aziz (Abdelghani Kitab), and his only child, who gets treated worse than their dog. Aziz’s regular trips to the local barber-cum-dentist (Ahmed Yarziz, who looks like a Moroccan Roberto Benigni) are a source of mirth, as is the struggle to adapt of a newly arrived doctor (Anas El Baz, probably the most famous face in a cast that’s a mix of pros and non-pros). The grouchy male nurse (Hasan Ben Bdida) who assists the medical professional seems to suggest the same generic pills for every ailment.
The largely predictable routines of the staid locals are, of course, perfect for people who are looking for ways to disrupt them, such as the thief who needs to figure out a way to get past the guard. Indeed, the ways in which the writer-director establishes patterns that he can then subvert are familiar but nonetheless a source of amusement. The comedy is often as dry as the landscape and while it’s not as infrequent as rain in the desert, there are more than a few barren stretches that just observe the characters going about their daily chores.
A few absurdist touches — a dog that’s fitted with golden teeth; the appearance of a burnt crop circle of sorts — suggest that people in isolated places might entertain odd ideas simply because of boredom or practicality. This, in turn, subverts the absurd notion that all old, rural geezers are either backwards or off their rocker. The idea that forgotten villages in the desert are completely static is also undermined here, as exemplified by the way the new shrine — a result of ancestral beliefs and superstitions more than religion — causes new people to arrive and even a new road to the pilgrim site to be constructed using dynamite. However, Aljem never fully develops or connects these different ideas, which might disappoint those looking for something more substantial but which also clearly aids Saint’s reliably light-footed tone.
Photography, production design and the sparingly used score are all well executed but they clearly take a backseat to the actors, who delight in playing things as straight as possible. Thanks to their work, the audience can sit back and wander around the village alongside them, enjoying this slight but nonetheless pleasurable story that at times recalls the sense of invention and fun of fellow countryman Faouzi Bensaidi’s WWW: What a Wonderful World.
Production companies: Le moindre geste, Altamar Films
Cast: Younes Bouab, Salah Bensalah, Bouchaib Essamak, Mohamed Naimane, Anas El Baz, Hassan Ben Bdida, Abdelghani Kitab, Ahmed Yarziz
Writer-Director: Alaa Eddine Aljem
Producers: Francesca Duca, Alexa Rivero
Director of photography: Amine Berrada
Production designer: Kaoutar Haddioui
Editor: Lilian Corbeille
Music: Amine Bouhafa
Sales: The Match Factory
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
No rating, 100 minutes
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