Rock the Casbah: Toronto Review

Rock the Casbah still H
This French-Moroccan tearjerker is classically formulated yet highly effective.

A strong cast of North African and Middle Eastern stars highlight this stirring sophomore effort from "Marock" director Laila Marrakchi.

PARIS – Following her well-received and rather controversial first feature, Marock, writer-director Laila Marrakchi continues to explore the flaws and foibles of her fellow upper-class countrywomen in the ensemble dramedy, Rock the Casbah. Adding a Maghreb twist to a topic mined in the similarly structured Israeli film 7 Days, this winningly performed portrait of three sisters coming together for their father’s burial is a tad too light on laughs, but definitely heavy on tears, several bucketsful of which are tossed out in a third act whose predictability doesn’t take away from its potency.

The 37-year-old Moroccan filmmaker burst onto the scene with her 2005 Cannes-selected debut, whose illicit love story between a Muslim girl and Jewish boy drew the wrath of national censors, although it was ultimately released uncut and became the highest grossing local film the following year.

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While Casbah plays more like a conventional French family saga, complete with sibling rivalries, sexual tensions and contentious inheritances, it continues to explore notions of class and culture in a country caught between Muslim traditions and ever-encroaching Western influences. As such, the Franco-Moroccan co-production should see strong numbers in both territories (it rolled out in France via Pathe on Sept 11), with possible overseas pick-ups following an international bow in Toronto.

Set over three days -- whose chapter headings denote the ancient mourning ritual of “gnaza,” while also neatly dividing the drama into three acts -- the story follows the survivors of the freshly deceased Moulay Hassan (the great Omar Sharif), a successful business mogul with a stunning mansion located on the outskirts of Tangiers.

As his devoted widow, Aicha (vet Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass), hastily prepares for the wake, matters are soon complicated by the arrival of his trio of cagey daughters: the desperately rich housewife, Miriam (actress-director Nadine Labaki, Caramel), the conservative schoolteacher, Kenza (Lubna Azabal, Incendies) and the New York-based actress, Sofia (Morjana Alaoui, Martyrs), whose rocky marriage with a horror film director seems partially inspired by Marrakchi’s own story. (She’s the wife of Splat Pack auteur Alexandre Aja, credited here as associate producer.)

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If Sofia is ridden with love troubles and daddy issues, her sisters are no better off, and before you can say King Lear, the three are fighting over everything from boob jobs to bad sex, their cussing and kvetching shocking the observant elders who spend all day lounging around the house.

Marrakchi draws occasional laughs from these squabbles, though the comedy plays fairly broadly and never dominates a scenario that has something deeper at its core. This is alluded to in an early scene involving the family’s trusty servant/nanny, Yacout (Fatima Harrandi “Raouia”), who Aicha wants to dispose of for unknown reasons. Later on, Yacout’s wayward son (Adel Bencherif, A Prophet) arrives to stir up a ruckus, and when a romance between the troublemaker and the girls’ long departed sister is suggested, it doesn’t take a Master’s in classic drama to figure out where things are headed.

Despite the lack of surprises, the director capably gets the waterworks flowing during an extended second act funeral sequence, and they keep coming through a finale where family secrets rise to the surface and the entire cast literally bawls their way to the closing credits. As cheesy as that sounds, the ensemble does a terrific job making the histrionics feel both plausible and affecting, with Alaoui the standout as a woman wavering between her heritage and her profession (she’s typecast as a terrorist on American TV shows), and the engagingly dark Bencherif as a pariah unable to voice his burgeoning inner anguish.

Shot in glossy widescreen by Pierric Gantelmi d’Ille (38 temoins), and narrated by a whimsical Sharif -- whose ghostly presence adds another light touch -- the film is slickly assembled and cut together, with composer Robin Coudert (Horns, Grand Central) rendering the atmosphere both airy and dramatic at the same time. Additional soundtrack choices include songs by Phoenix, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and a stirring Antony and the Johnsons ballad that provides a poignant contrast to all the wailing and chanting accompanying Hassan's burial.


Production companies: Estrella, Pathe, Agora Films, La Chauve Souris

Cast: Morjana Alaoui, Nadine Labaki, Lubna Azabal, Hiam Abbas, Omar Sharif, Adel Bencherif

Director, screenwriter: Laila Marrakchi

Producer: Stephanie Carreras

Director of photography: Pierric Gantelmi d’Ille

Production designer: Benoit Barouh

Costume designer: Ayda Diouri

Music: Rob

Editor: Jennifer Auge

Sales Agent: Pathe International

No rating, 98 minutes