'Razzia': Film Review | TIFF 2017

Courtesy of TIFF
A potent group portrait whose sum is greater than its parts.

Moroccan writer-director Nabil Ayouch (‘Much Loved’) follows the fate of several characters living in Casablanca in this Toronto Platform premiere.

A sprawling cri de coeur set in the heart of modern-day Casablanca, Nabil Ayouch’s Razzia is an intense network narrative that nearly collapses under the weight of its own ambitions. During its best moments, the film is something like a Moroccan Magnolia, following five stories that gradually overlap and then lead to an explosive finale. But some of the plotlines clearly work better than others, even if as a whole they constitute a sharp critique of a country mired by corruption and intolerance, filled with characters who, like the Queen song on the soundtrack, want to break free.

Ayouch’s provocative last feature, Much Loved, plunged viewers into the lower depths of local prostitution and caused a major stir in his homeland, where it was banned after premiering in Cannes. (The film’s lead actress, Loubna Abidar, was violently attacked in 2015 and eventually expatriated to France.) With its depictions of teenage sexuality, Islamist oppression, social unrest, androgyny and more prostitution, Razzia should likewise dismay Morocco’s powers-that-be, while a slot in Toronto’s Platform section will propel it through international markets and festivals.

Working with actress-writer Maryam Touzani, Ayouch has cast a wide net of stories that begin in 1982 and then jump forward to 2015, when mobs of protestors take to the streets and the powder keg that is Casablanca looks ready to burst. In between, we’re introduced to a handful of characters, beginning with a heartbreakingly dedicated country schoolteacher, Abdallah (Amine Ennaji), who is doing his best to enlighten his students. But a new national reform favoring an Islam-heavy program puts Abdallah at odds with an educational bureaucrat, who soon takes over his class.

That first story is actually one of the more powerful ones, with Ennaji’s stoical turn providing an early burst of emotion. It’s too bad that Ayouch leaves it behind so soon, although he goes on to show the ripple effects of Abdallah’s dismissal on several people — including a former student and a widow he fell in love with — underlining how Morocco’s swing toward more fundamentalist policies will prove detrimental to many.

After that initial episode, we meet a succession of Casablanca dwellers from different walks of life, all of them struggling to find a shred of happiness in the tough and repressive city. There’s Joe (Arieh Worthalter), the Jewish restaurateur smitten with a young call girl who flees when she learns about her client’s religion; Salima (co-writer Touzani), who’s stuck in an abusive relationship with a misogynistic businessman; Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid), a wannabe rock star who idolizes Freddie Mercury and is mocked in public for his looks; and Ines (Dounia Binebine), a spoiled teenager whose budding sexuality is thwarted by religious and social pressures.    

Rather than introducing all of these characters simultaneously, Ayouch gradually brings them in one at a time, with Ines arriving a tad too late in the game. Her story is probably the film’s most controversial, with its scenes of the teen talking sex, using a tampon for purposes other than the prescribed ones, mutilating herself and, in one memorable sequence, performing a Muslim prayer while a smutty pop music video plays on her TV. Such images can be a bit on the nose and Ines never really feels like a full-fledged character: If Ayouch is trying to make a point about the dangerous friction between capitalism and religion, we hear it all-too loud and clear.

Yet Razzia, which means “raid” in Arabic, was never meant to be a subtle exposé on the problems facing both Casablanca and Morocco as a whole, but rather an angry, hot-blooded fresco about people pushed to the brink by an unjust system — whether such injustice takes the form of sexual opression, anti-Semitism or all-out class warfare. The latter gradually becomes the film’s main theme, with street protests from angry youths taking over the city while several of the main characters converge in a final party sequence that degenerates into a bloodbath.

Such an ending can feel more forced than motivated, as if Ayouch is trying to hammer home his point without always justifying how he got there. Yet while the fates of Joe, Salima, Hakim and Ines are somewhat implausibly worked out by the last act, the overall impact of Razzia is still like that of a gut punch. Just as one character — who connects all the way back the teacher— will learn that his favorite movie Casablanca was shot far away in Hollywood, Ayouch brushes aside all nostalgia and exoticism to reveal a city on the verge of a major upheaval. But perhaps it's a necessary one.

Production company: Unite de Production
Cast: Maryam Touzani, Arieh Worthalter, Amine Ennaji, Abdelilah Rachid, Dounia Binebine, Abdellah Didane
Director: Nabil Ayouch
Screenwriters: Nabil Ayouch, Maryam Touzani
Producers: Bruno Nahon, Patrick Quinet, Nabil Ayouch
Director of photography:
Production designer: Hafid Amly
Costume designer:
Composers: Caroline Chaspoul, Edouardo Henriquez, Guillaume Poncelat
Casting director:
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Platform)
Sales: Films Distribution

In Arabic, French
109 minutes