ROCK THE CASBAH. (Morocco) Starring Morjana Aloui, Nadine Labaki, Lubna Azabal, Hiam Abbas, Omar Sharif. Directed by Laila Marrakshi. 103 minutes. Rated MA (Mature themes, sexual references and nudity).
We don’t often see films from Morocco, so this is a welcome opportunity for the audience to immerse itself in a country where many films are made, mainly American and biblical period films, but whose way of life, in an Islamic country, is little known.
While there are some serious things in this film, it opens with panoramic helicopter views of a Moroccan city, the coast, the beach full of people, a sunny Mediterranean country. And, in the background, Bing Crosby and Bob hope singing We’re off on the road to Morocco (which has the classic lyric, “like Webster’s dictionary, we’re Morocco-bound”).
We meet an old man walking in the spacious park grounds of his mansion, telling us about his movie-going in the past and our sometimes mistaking the movie for reality. He is played by Omar Sharif, reminding us of his more than 50 year film career, acting at the age of 81. But, as we watch him walk, goes into a room where a body is being prepared for burial. He confides to us that it is his. He will make a number of appearances during the film, a genial ghostly figure, commenting on his life and his family.
Because this is one of those films where a significant figure in the family dies, everyone gathers for the funeral rites – in the reading of the will.
One of his daughters arrives from the United States where she is a film star, portraying terrorists (and we have a glimpse of one of her films towards the end with the family watching, her grandmother taking it rather literally). Her husband is a director of horror films and she brings her little son to Morocco. She has left the Moroccan way of life behind as well as her family and, though sometimes lonely, she is an American. She has three sisters, though one of them has died long since. Another is a teacher, devout, patriotic, a touch hard, with a supportive husband and a son who has a camp manner and wants to sing in Broadway musicals. The other sister is bored with life, lazy, and indulging herself in corrective surgery for her vanity.
Interesting is the widow, full of grief and tension, snapping at the servant who has been with the family for 30 years. She is played by the Palestinian actress, Hiam Abbas.
The film is divided into three days: the living, the burial, the separation.
Which gives us plenty of time to get to know the characters, their strengths and weaknesses, the interaction of the sisters, the importance of their mother, the importance of the maid and her son who was involved with the daughter who died. There is also the dead man’s brother, unmarried, rather eager to get his hand on his brother’s will as the male heir with priority in Moroccan law before women, even the deceased’s wife and daughters.
But, as we might guess, these reunions are far from happy and we become aware of secrets and lies, secrets gradually being revealed, some devastating consequences for lives.
The film has a strong feminine sensibility, the writer-director, Laila Marrakshi, who was written the female characters with insight and some sympathy.
Looking at this affluent Moroccan family, with action mainly within the house, though there are some sequences in clubs and streets outside the house, we realise that Morocco offers a rather more open society (even if still fairly patriarchal), behaviour, dress for women, prayers and rituals than in, say, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Always interesting, always humane.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released 20th November 2015.