Sponsored mostly by Marrakech’s King Muhammed VI, who dodged the currents of the Arab Spring by promising largely cosmetic reforms for his greatly impoverished country, the 12th annual Festival International du Film de Marrakech was lavish and well programmed, as John Boorman’s jury of international movie stars and auteurs yielded a crop of winners worth arguing about late into the unseasonably cold Moroccan nights.
Drawing heavily from Toronto and Venice, the festival does a number of things younger, less well-financed festivals could learn from. Despite the pomp and circumstance, the focus is truly on an eclectic and well-considered competition lineup. Despite retrospectives for directors like Boorman, Jonathan Demme and Zhang Yimou, the competition films are never drowned out by the rampant pomp and circumstance.
Well-attended screenings start on time; traveling throughout the sprawling metropolis, perched just below the foothills of the snowcapped Atlas Mountains, is made easy by a fleet of drivers unfazed by a city seemingly without streetlights. Outdoor screenings in the city’s legendary square Jamaa El Fanaa (immortalized by Hitchcock in “The Man Who Knew Too Much”), draw tens of thousands.
Film festivals in exotic locales, for better or worse, thrive on star wattage. Tributes to Demme, Yimou, Isabelle Huppert and seemingly the entire Bollywood film industry took place on a stage in the massive Palais de Congres that looks like a postmodern ‘70s game show. The opening party at the new Taj Palace included belly dancers, men on stilts and several tiers of VIP importance, lest any plebes try to get within shouting distance of filmmakers like jury member James Gray, or Darren Aronofsky, who taught a two-hour “masterclass.”
That event was moderated by a TV presenter who asked terrible questions and had the effortless, leisure-class leer of a Third World dictator. It revealed little new info; Aronofsky had no interest in talking about “Noah” or discussing anything you can’t find on his director commentaries. It was hard to associate Aronofsky with the guy who made a $50,000 movie 15 years ago.
Last year, rumor had Prince Moulay Rachid, the King’s younger brother, personally request that Jessica Chastain sit next to him at his nine-course festival dinner; this year, his guest was Monica Bellucci, who was in town with Bahman Ghobadi’s “Rhino Season.” She plays the long-lost wife of the Kurdish-Iranian poet Saleh, a family friend of Ghobadi’s, who was imprisoned for nearly 30 years following the Iranian revolution.
A step up in budget for Ghobadi, whose “No One Knows About Persian Cats” was a hit on the festival circuit a few years ago, “Rhino Season” has an overly mannered style; the budget just for lens filters and post-production software may have been higher than all of “Persian Cats.” His style maintains some of the rough-hewn immediacy of his earlier films, but that feels mostly like mistakes seeping into a suddenly over-determined style.
The film’s main problem, beyond its suffocating aesthetic, is it’s awfully low on tangible information concerning Saleh’s poetry and political persuasion. The context of the revolution is established with out-of-focus shots of revolutionary protest stock footage, superimposed with an ice-strewn tree branch that’s dripping water. It’s cheap and underwhelming, but given the dramatic import of the events, it also feels like the easy way out of dramatizing Saleh’s political stance. Was he in favor of the Shah? What about the content of his poems rankled the Islamists?