Traitors: Venice Review

Traitors Venice Film Festival Still - H 2013

Traitors Venice Film Festival Still - H 2013

An energetic if occasionally predictable genre film with a punky, female energy.

The Morocco-set debut feature of U.S. filmmaker Sean Gullette stars Chaimae Ben Acha in a breakout performance.

VENICE, Italy -- The lead singer of an all-girl punk rock band from Morocco says yes to a drug run in order to finance a studio booking in Traitors, the fiercely energetic debut feature of U.S. filmmaker Sean Gullette.

A rare genre film from the Maghreb that centers on a female universe, Traitors benefits immensely from a spiky lead turn from newcomer Chaimae Ben Acha, whose innate charisma helps paper over the film’s at times overly familiar plot twists and whose tomboyish attitude helps make her character a believable driver who has a few aces up her sleeve when things start to go downhill on her first return trip from the mountains.

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The film fits snugly into the recent run of hip, youth-oriented films from Morocco that flirt with genre, such as Casanegra, On the Edge and the last couple of films of Faouzi Bensaidi, and will similarly struggle to break out of the lower regions of the festival circuit, though Gullette and Ben Acha should go on to do greater things.

The protagonist of the feature, based on a 30-minute short from 2010 also called Traitors, is again Malika (Ben Acha), a statuesque 25-year-old who prefers jeans and hoodies to dresses. She’s the singer of the eponymous punk-rock band that consists entirely of girls and is so heavily influenced by Joe Strummer and The Clash that one of their songs is a localized riff on I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.

The plot’s set in motion by the girls’ need to drum up the money to rent a recording studio so they can produce a demo tape. Malika’s just been fired from her dreadfully boring call-center job and her conservative dad, a poor garage owner, can’t offer much help either. After a somewhat out-of-character attempt to swindle a tourist out of money, Malika finds herself between a rock and a hard place and is finally saved by a rich garage customer (Mourade Zeguendi) who offers her a well paid, one-off job as a chauffeur.

All she has to do is drive a fancy car into the mountains and drive it back past several roadblocks. There’s only a tiny little catch: The car doors are lined with drugs. The screenplay, written by the director, consists of two only loosely related halves set in the city and the countryside, and overall structure and coherence are not Gullette's forte. However, he's good with smaller details, such as the nifty way the possible dangers of the return trip are illustrated by giving Malika more experienced company on the way there who can explain what she should worry about and how she should act on the way back.

During their brief sojourn in the mountains, Malika strikes up a conversation with the initially standoffish Amal (Soufia Issami, from On the Edge), who’ll be the only one to accompany her back to Tangier. The relationship between the girls will quickly grow more important but isn’t developed sufficiently for all the events and changes of heart to be entirely credible, though Issami and Ben Acha do have good chemistry.  

Though overly facile girl-and-gangster cliches occasionally creep in, the girls’ stressful trip back -- augmented by Nathan Larson’s supple score that frequently toggles between atmospheric and more ominous moods -- and the home stretch that Malika has to face alone generally crackle with energy, tension and a certain cleverness that could be mistaken for intelligence that's reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, which starred Gullette and on which the filmmaker also had a story credit.

Though the budget must have been tight, no concessions are apparent on screen, with music, sound and visuals all excellent in a punky way.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)

Production companies: Kasbah Films, White Light White Heat, Sharjah Art Foundation
Cast: Chaimae Ben Acha, Soufia Issami, Driss Roukhe, Mourade Zeguendi, Morjana Alaoui
Writer-Director: Sean Gullette
Producers: Karim Debbagh, Sean Gullette, Audrey Rosenberg
Directors of photography: Benoit Peverelli, Niko Tavernise
Production designer: Shara Shishiboran
Music: Nathan Larson
Costume designer: Gery Georgieva
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Sales: Rezo Films
No rating, 84 minutes.