Death for Sale is Morocco’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. The publicity blurb makes it sound like the jewellery heist is the main event in this, Moroccan director/writer/actor Faouzi Bensaïdi’s latest film. However, the crime thriller label does not do this film justice. It is a character study of three friends, united in their lack of prospects and a desire to break free from the shackles of poverty without the real tools to do so. It is also a dark tale of misplaced trust, deception and corruption.
These are familiar themes of Bensaïdi’s work and this time he moves the setting to Tetouan, a port city on the Mediterranean where Europe is as tantalisingly close as it is in Tangiers, the setting for ‘Loin’ (‘Far’), to which Bensaïdi contributed scenario, dialogue and his acting skills. Death for Sale, however, is not a stereotypical film about Moroccans seeking to run away to Europe, but rather about those seeking to escape a cycle of unemployment, poverty and petty crime within the social, economic and religious boundaries of modern Morocco.
The long, languid shots of oppressive grey skies above Tetouan nestling among the surrounding hills and the opening scenes outside the city jail set the backdrop for a story the viewer instinctively knows cannot have a happy ending. And perhaps for Allal (Mouhcine Malzi), we are less bothered: the film opens with his release from prison and it seems that his destiny – particularly once he decides to become top dog in the city’s drugs trade – is already long set. And perhaps we feel the same is true for Soufiane (Fouad Labied), who appears the youngest and most naive of the trio and who doesn’t seem to have what it takes to make it in any other way than bag snatching. But for the troubled Malik (Fehd Benchemsi), who falls hard for the beautiful Dounia (Imane Elmechrafi) in a series of silent scenarios we only hope that destiny can be thwarted. (These vignettes of boy-meets-girls Moroccan-style, where in one case CocaCola is a substitute for a chat-up line, are a bit like Moroccan mint tea: you know it’s not right, but you can’t help warming to the over-sugared bitterness). But these are no naive love-sick innocents: we have already established by this point that Malik is a small-time thief and we come to learn, as crudely suggested by her immodest (by Islamic but not Western standards) attire, Dounia is a prostitute. Nevertheless, the complexity of these two characters, the ferocity of their love and the sheer hopelessness of their situation makes us want to hope that they have a future together. Bensaïdi, however, has a few more twists and turns up his sleeve.
As in other films he has directed or written, such as his ‘WWW: What a Wonderful World’, Bensaïdi also plays in Death for Sale. Police Inspector Dabbaz is creepy, immoral by anyone’s code and fundamentally corrupt. Although the character is undoubtedly designed to represent an aspect of modern society, Bensaïdi does not seem to fully embody it, and I was left feeling the dialogue or the character could have been better developed. It was almost as if he wasn’t nasty enough (although he is thoroughly unpleasant). To me, this under-treatment of issues was a recurrent feature of Death for Sale, which made the film slightly less satisfying than it could have been. Themes such as women’s rights, corruption, religious fanaticism, hypocrisy and honour were skirted over in a manner which might make sufficient passing reference for a Moroccan audience but which I felt could have done with more profound exploration. And there would have been sufficient time: the film is 117 minutes long.
In short, the film could have been slicker. The story could have progressed at a better pace with better editing, leaving out some of the more indulgent flights of Bensaïdi’s artistic fancy, which could also have allowed for a more rounded treatment of some of the issues. And I’m not even sure what the title means! Nevertheless, commercial Moroccan cinema is rare thing and the industry is dependent on a lot of external funding – to get European/North American distribution to a paying audience if nothing else. Faouzi Bensaïdi is one of the few Moroccan directors who has had repeated success at international film festivals, although in my opinion it’s unlikely this one will make the Oscars short-list. And this film is definitely worth its audience: all the big issues are in there, there is some excellent character acting from relative newcomers and a credible storyline which keeps us guessing until the end, all of which come together to give a decent insight into Morocco today (albeit probably one the Moroccan Tourist Board might prefer we didn’t).
For more information on Moroccan films and funding, including Bensaïdi’s ‘WWW: What a Wonderful World’, see my earlier post, Morocco in Motion (Pictures) on this website.