Wolf: San Sebastian Review

XYZ Films
A gritty, black-and-white but also overly familiar story of crime and no redemption.

The solo directorial debut of Dutch-Maluku director Jim Taihuttu, who co-directed local hit "Rabat," stars Marwan Kenzari, Chemseddine Amar and Raymond Thiry.

A bulky Dutch-Moroccan on probation fights his way to the top of the Utrecht boxing and criminal scenes in Wolf, the first solo directorial feature of Dutch-Maluku director Jim Taihuttu, whose first directorial effort, Rabat, co-directed with Victor Ponten, was a surprise critical and audience hit in the Netherlands in 2011.

Wolf’s shot in crisp black-and-white, which seems appropriate as it offers a much less nuanced -- some would argue simply less rosy -- picture of the immigrant experience in the Low Countries, with the second-generation immigrant protagonist having been in the slammer before the film starts and subsequently doing everything he can to prove he’s the buttered-up side of Murphy Law’s slice of bread, heading straight for the ground.

The film’s story of immigrant rags-to-criminal-riches is overly familiar: this is the umpteenth incarnation of a kid’s dream to become the new Scarface, so blinded by the available bling and buxom beauties that he conveniently overlooks the writing on the wall spelling out his violent, blood-splattered demise. However, the strength of the performances and its convincingly stripped-down look have attracted the attention of festivals including San Sebastian, the Fantastic Fest in Austin and the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht and sales agent XYZ has already sold the film to Italy, Germany and the U.K.

Majid (Marwan Kenzari, from Rabat) is out on parole and works a menial job at a flower auction house, which seems to make Majid’s parole officer (Jacob Derwig in an effective cameo) happier than Majid himself. He initially seems to be a decent guy at heart, warning his kid brother Tarek not to get involved in crime, but at the same time Majid doesn’t want to put in any effort himself at all, dismissing his job simply because it will never get him the money he needs to buy the big car he thinks he deserves.

That there’s no small irony in the fact Majid’s father worked the same job for 30 years and managed to raise a family just fine is something the film leaves frustratingly unexplored. Indeed, it’s never really clear why Majid ended up as a criminal in the first place, robbing the film of any potential to comment on larger socio-political issues in the Netherlands.

The protagonist’s best pal, Adil (Chemseddine Amar), lacks Majid’s balls and is so virulently homophobic he’s clearly a tragic closet case (something else the film never develops). As soon as they’re united after Majid’s release, they’re back at their games of petty crime, which seem empowering and even fun, illustrating they’ve got no morals or self-respect and Majid either loved the time in jail so much he can’t wait to be sent back or he thinks he’ll miraculously escape being caught during his parole, which makes him either stupid or embarrassingly naive, precluding any possibility of audience sympathy.

Majid, who’s as broad as a walk-in closet, also gets involved in kickboxing with a coach (Raymond Thiry, playing another boxing trainer after David LammersNorthern Light), which further helps illustrate Majid’s aptitude for violence and his inability to control his temper. Indeed, his uncontrollable attitude in the ring gets him noticed by a Turkish mafia boss (Cahit Olmez) who hires him as a heavy that can “help out” his thugs in drug-deal negotiations.

Where all this is headed can’t exactly be called a surprise and even Taihuttu seems to lose interest in the film’s second hour, barely bothering with the perfunctory action scenes and leaving all the supporting characters woefully underdeveloped. Majid’s on/off girlfriend (Bo Maertens) has no personality apart from a masochistic streak that very indirectly suggest she likes being abused and has just as little self-respect as her sometimes-boyfriend, while Majid’s older brother (Nasrdin Dchar, also from Rabat), who’s dying of cancer, is painted as such a goody two-shoes he might as well sport a halo around his hospital bed.

Taihattu, whose characters in Rabat grew from clichés into complex human beings, seems to be under the mistaken impression in his solo directorial debut that a bleaker story equates to simply getting rid of any shades of gray. Quite the opposite is true, as the lack of nuance in a story foretold simply reduces everything to storytelling clichés, robbing the characters of their humanity and thus depriving their destinies of any sense of tragedy. 

Kenzari’s at least a charismatic presence and the cinematography by Rabat alumnus Lennart Verstegen delivers the expected grit. Other below-the-line credits are also solid. 

Venue: Netherlands Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Habbekrats, NTR, Fei Productions, TopNotch
Cast: Marwan Kenzari, Nasrdin Dchar, Raymond Thiry, Chemseddine Amar, Cahit Olmez, Bo Maerten, Mustafa Duygulu, Mohammed El Mimouni, Jacob Derwig
Writer-Directors: Jim Taihuttu
Producer: Julius Ponten
Director of photography: Lennart Verstegen
Production designer: Lieke Scholman
Music: Gino Taihuttu
Costume designer: Minke Lunter
Editor: Wouter van Luijn
Sales: XYZ Films
No rating, 119 minutes.

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