Exit Marrakech: Toronto Review

Exit Marrakech Still - H 2013
FilmFernsehFonds Bayern
A structurally problematic film that's saved by solid performances and a genuine sense of place.

Oscar-winning director Caroline Link ("Nowhere in Africa") returns to the dark continent for her latest, which stars Ulrich Tukur, Hafsia Herzi and newcomer Samuel Schneider.

TORONTO -- A German teenager who’s visiting his theater-director father in Morocco tries to find himself with or without his dad’s help in Exit Marrakech, a return to the dark continent for Oscar-winning German director Caroline Link (Nowhere in Africa).

Though the film tries to weld two genres together that are occasionally at odds with each other -- the film’s both a father/son drama and a coming-of-age story in which an adolescent tries to assert his own independence -- there are quite a few powerful individual moments, the film looks and sounds gorgeous without overly fetishizing its exotic setting and the acting is strong, including from impressive newcomer Samuel Schneider in the lead.

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The film will be released in Germany Oct. 24 and should attract some attention. Abroad, festival travel is a given and distributors interested in arthouse titles on the more accessible end of the spectrum should take a look.

After being told at his boarding school that he’s intelligent but needs to allow for some adventure in his life, Ben (Schneider) travels to Morocco, where his father, Heinrich (Ulrich Tukur), is touring with a play he directed as part of a European arts festival. The two men seem to care little for each other: Heinrich’s too absorbed in his work and likes to read about Morocco in a deck chair next to the pool in his free time while Ben prefers the real thing and explores the city on foot and skateboard.

However, already in these early scenes, Link, who also wrote the screenplay, never overtly connects the behavior of father and son. It’s never clear whether Ben wants to explore Marrakech because his father doesn’t want to or whether it’s something that Ben wanted to do regardless. Without such information, the narrative split that occurs when Ben decides to follow a beautiful young prostitute, Karima (Hafsia Herzi), to her village in the mountains, creates something that feels like a quasi-idyllic interlude in the developing father/son drama, rather than something that’s either an emotional necessity for or counterpoint to that story.

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Though the overall structure is problematic, Link demonstrates a keen eye for observation in many individual scenes and there’s a clear sense that Morocco is a place full of contradictions, both for its inhabitants and for rich tourists such as Ben. One of the Link’s most impressive feats is that she manages to suggests that these two realities can easily co-exist but in reality hardly mingle.

Tukur (The Lives of Others, The White Ribbon) has a difficult task, as Heinrich is not the typical negligent father who turns all soft after a couple of weeks in the desert with his strapping teenage son. In a refreshing choice, Link has decided to make both men aware of the drinking and womanizing Heinrich’s disinterest in and perhaps even incapacity for fatherhood (at least when it comes to Ben, as he has a small daughter with another woman).

This means that he’s not very sympathetic but Tukur shrewdly manages to turn Heinrich’s unapologetic honesty into one of the character’s virtues. Opposite him, Schneider is a revelation as Ben, someone who might be confused about where he’s going but who nonetheless has no problem carrying an entire film. And Herzi brings some much-needed spunk to a rather clichéd role, even if her character rather abruptly exists the proceedings after a dust-up with her conservative family.

Cinematographer Bella Halben and production designer Susann Bieling present a textured, warm and richly colored widescreen version of Morocco that manages at once to be stunning and yet feel realistic. Niki Reiser’s score is atmospheric, though its reliance on oud strings to give the music some local flavor is a rather facile choice.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)

Production companies: Desert Flower Filmproduktion, Erfttal Film- und Fernsehproduktion, B.A. Produktion, MTM West, Studiocanal Film, ARD Degeto, BR, WDR, Arte
Cast: Ulrich Tukur, Samuel Schneider, Hafsia Herzi, Marie-Lou Sellem, Josef Bierbichler, Abdelsalam Bouhasni, Mourad Zaoui, Mouaouiya Nafis
Writer-Director: Caroline Link
Producers: Peter Hermann, Ute Kramer
Director of photography: Bella Halben
Production designer: Susann Bieling
Music: Niki Reiser
Costume designer: Barbara Grupp
Editor: Patricia Rommel
Sales: Arri Worldsales
No rating, 122 minutes.