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?
A pity really, as the acting is quite fine; particularly good are Iranian megastar Behrouz Vossoughi as Saleh and Belluci as a Persian woman across 30 hard years in an effectively minimalist performance. The film potently suggests the special kind of hell a Persian jail can be. Telling a complicated story across multiple timeframes in a manner than suggests mid-90’s Atom Egoyan clearly isn’t Ghobadi’s strength, however; the sum of the parts far outweighs the whole.
Stepping directly into the neverending Israeli-Palestinian maelstrom (or perhaps bowing to it), Boorman and his crew elected to give the festival’s top prize to Ziad Douieri’s handsomely made, potentially galling “The Attack,” a film that meditates on the special form of “caught between two cultures” hell that descends upon Dr. Amin Jaafari (a serviceable Ali Suliman, who makes the most of an uneven script), an assimilated Palestinian surgeon who we meet caring for the victims of yet another suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Some won’t let him, of course; perhaps they’d rather bleed out than be treated by a Palestinian. When his wife never comes home that night, he begins to worry, but his worst fears are about to be surpassed — not only was she killed, she was apparently the bomber, despite ostensibly being a Palestinian Christian with no previous ties to activism or armed rebellion.
His citizenship now in question, his inclusive friends turned suspicious, his comfortable life shattered, Dr. Jaafari returns to the Palestinian territories to seek those who recruited his wife and “turned” her into a dreaded terrorist. What will he do when he finds them? He doesn’t have much of an idea and apparently neither do the filmmakers; they never present him as being much of a threat to anyone, including himself.
The movie suggests Jaafari didn’t know his wife well enough to know that she would kill herself to kill others as a political gesture. And the IDF would let him back into the country, despite the cloud of suspicion hanging over him? How is any of this possible? The movie never gives a persuasive answer, filling the gaps with shots of Tel-Aviv streets, close-ups of Suliman pondering and sexy flashback montages of Jaafari and his terrorist wife.
Jaafari seems oddly detached from the Palestinian plight. That a Palestinian man could come of age in the territories, move to Israel, become a citizen and prominent surgeon and have no significant consciousness of the rampant discrimination and second-class citizenship faced by his people seems ridiculous. Surely his consciousness is raised by his visit, but he ends the film pining for life as it was at the beginning, hoping the status quo can go on forever.
This film, made by a Lebanese director sympathetic with the Palestinian cause, suggests that the status quo can continue, but I didn’t buy much of what “The Attack” is selling. Nor, apparently, do many Middle Eastern audiences, unconvinced that the material and marital comforts that seems so important to Jaafari should outweigh the political imperative of having a permanent home for the world’s most maligned, semi-permanent refugees.
Bolder than all the rest, the crown jewel of the competition was Vahid Vakilifar’s austere-to-the-max, sumptuously weird, 78-shot (I wasn’t the only person counting) “Taboor.” A dystopian sci-fi set in Tehran, it’s the story of a wordless man who lives in a one-room trailer in the hills above Tehran and wears a foil jumpsuit to shield him from a mysterious rise in temperature caused by electromagnetic waves that are slowly cooking his insides.
Apparently making a living by spraying underground pipes with a mysterious chemical, the hero is like something out of a Bresson film — all process, zero personality. That he seems to have zero hope to outlast his affliction, save a wordless midget who strips him naked from the waist up, puts a bucket over his head and shoots him repeatedly with a BB gun, doesn’t necessarily make the proceedings dour; “Taboor” is rife with humor, despite its existential concerns.
Vakilifar, who was behind 2010’s sensational, equally stripped down “Gesher,” is one of international cinema’s most exciting new talents, a director who shoots in stripped-down, standard-def DV and composes ironic but weirdly soulful, Bazinian moments out of the minutae of modern Persian life, it’s a haunting account of a man wasting away in a society that couldn’t care less.