The Marrakech International Film Festival does an excellent job of bringing in first and second films for their main competition, which includes entries from across the globe, from India to Iran to Mexico. This year, the last of those three countries was represented by Jonás Cuarón, with the Mexico-France co-production Desierto, a narratively stripped-down thriller about a group of Mexican refugees, led by Moises (Gael García Bernal), being hunted at the border by Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a whiskey-swigging American accompanied by his high-caliber rifle and ferocious pooch, Tracker.
Cuarón opens the film with a relatively serene and striking shot of a desert landscape, as the title slowly dissolves into focus, perched behind the distant vista. It’s a great image, bolstered by Cuarón’s decision to emphasize the vastness of the open terrain at the start, which is shortly contrasted with Sam’s insatiable taste for hapless violence. But Desierto quickly develops into a third-rate The Most Dangerous Game, with any perceptive dialogue or even contemporary socio-political subtext pummeled by Cuarón’s preference for empty genre thrills, as each Mexican is graphically (and almost gleefully) picked off one by one while the film’s loud score aimlessly blares in support.
By the end of the film’s first third, which is capped by Sam’s slaughter of a dozen Mexicans and a subsequent one-liner, “Welcome to the land of the free,” the film might be appreciated as bizarro camp if not for the stoic visage it maintains throughout. Cuarón wants to indulge archetypal genre templates and transcend them too, a choice that he roundly proves unable to reconcile in any thoughtful manner. Like Cop Car, also in the main competition, “nourish” is used as an endgame. At least Jon Watts’s film has the good sense to acknowledge its inherent silliness by progressively morphing Kevin Bacon’s bad cop into a maniacal, even humorous Terminator type. Cuarón merely clings to Sam’s one-note evil as if a Southern caricature who’s hungry for Mexican blood is supposed to be an impressive idea.
Very Big Shot, on the other hand, adeptly transforms itself across genres from a solemn gangster drama into a raucous satire about the qualities shared by drug runners, filmmakers, and politicians in their pursuits of power. Awarded the fest’s Golden Star award, writer-director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya’s debut feature opens with a loud and violent interaction between Lebanese drug runners, ending with one of them being gunned down amid the scuffle. Five years later, Ziad (Alain Saadeh) and his brother, Jad (Wissam Fares), who took the blame for the opening slaying, run a pizzeria in Beirut that fronts their operation, delivering drugs concealed within parmesan cheese packets. After a deal gone wrong at the Syrian border, Ziad concocts a plan to fund a movie in order to smuggle drugs through film canisters, which aren’t scanned for inspection at local airports. With the help of a late-paying customer/director, Charbel (Fouad Yammine), the pair budget and plan a dream project of Charbel’s about “a Muslim man who falls for a Christian woman.”
Bou Chaaya does a commendable job of reining in the material’s inherent absurdity by melding violent melodrama with film-industry politics, which culminate in the film’s best scene: Ziad realizing that he has total control of the production and forcing Charbel to rewrite the script. Unlike Ben Affleck’s Argo, which merely fawned over the power of pop-cultural art, Very Big Shot remains skeptical about the transformative power of cinema, since it operates by the whims and capital of a select few individuals.
Moreover, certain moments linger, like Ziad mindlessly tapping at a video-game controller, in their evocation of political authority’s banality. Ziad has control of capital and art, but his one-track pursuit of fame reveals a child’s psychological depth. If Bou Chaaya stumbles in the final scenes by opting for ambiguity over harder-hitting, explicit assertions about the scenario’s larger implications, the film retains its valuable perceptions on just how easily patriarchy ultimately roots itself in nearly any circumstance.
Speaking of patriarchy, Thithi possesses the spirit of Yasujirō Ozu in its dealings with bubbling familial turmoil, which only spills over into outright hostility once it’s made clear that every family member’s personal plans cannot come to fruition. Director Raam Reddy examines the lives of three generations of family members (a father, son, and grandson) who each respond quite differently to the death of the eldest male, Century Gowda, whose possession of a swath of land obsesses the son, since it actually belongs to his aloof, distant, and uninterested father. Until the father signs the will, the land cannot be passed down, so the son concocts a plan to forge the documents necessary to place the land in his own possession.
Reddy interweaves character interaction without resorting to narrative tricks, plotting each male’s interest relating to the family’s “thithi,” a funeral to be held 11 days after death. Like the best filmmakers dealing with complex family ties, Reddy lets tensions emerge only in glimpses and rarely has characters provide any exposition regarding past conflicts. The end result may feel a bit underwhelming or haphazard because of the free-form plotting, but Reddy disperses so much meaning throughout, whether in wide-angle shots of the surrounding village or a focus on background faces, that the film’s scenic textures become one of the filmmaker’s key interests.
I saw two out-of-competition films, You Can’t Save Yourself Alone and The White Knights, both of which suffer from a softened approach to inherently difficult material. The former, directed by Sergio Castellitto, concerns a married couple has dinner to discuss their impending separation, which prompts them to reflect on their relationship’s origins. The film’s mise-en-scène is almost offensively pleasant, with bright colors and its well-dressed protagonists never looking more than a few minutes removed from a visit to the salon. It’s the type of thoroughly bourgeois film where a slightly crumpled label on a bottle of wine is the most disheveled object in the frame.
On the contrary, The White Knights outwardly deemphasizes middle-class materialism through its story about an NGO group of concerned French citizens who fashion themselves as the saviors of over 300 orphaned victims of civil war in contemporary Chad, but are soon met with resistance and disapproval from local officials. Director Joachim Lafosse shoots the nation’s dusty streets with mobile handheld cameras to emphasize the rough terrain, but the film is nearly scrubbed clean of formal or thematic complexity.
Lafosse stages a series of conflicts and interactions, often in long shot, that attempt to walk an ambivalent line between empathizing with humanitarian endeavors and condemning the self-righteous beliefs such organizations often espouse. When one team member warmly embraces a young boy and asks him if he’d like to go to France, the camera keeps its distance, statically looking ahead as the boy provides no answer. That’s the film as a whole, with an outcome that’s less a resolution of these human tensions and negotiations than an emphasis on Lafosse’s abdication of political inquiry.
The last film I saw at this year’s festival was Memories of the Wind, a Turkish period piece from director Özcan Alper set in Istanbul and an adjoining village during Turkey’s 1943 cooperation with the Nazis to sniff out minorities and members of oppositional parties. It was the morning after the festival’s main competition had ended and the Palais de Congrès was far emptier than during previous showings, lending the auditorium an extra degree of silence and stillness that, as it became clear, perfectly suited Alper’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour meditation on the way war and art becomes inextricably interlaced within cultural memory.
At the center of the film is Aram (Onur Saylak), a painter and translator forced to flee Istanbul for fear of imprisonment, and who passes his time by imagining and contemplating the potential outcome of his works, rather than studying the completed works of others. As a metaphor for art-making in general, Alper takes Aram’s technique and imbues the entire film with it.
What starts as a somewhat conventional drama morphs into a film that lingers within Aram’s thoughts as much as it progresses any larger historical narrative. One could even call the film subjective historicism, as there’s no real interest in defining exterior events or even contextualizing the immediate moment beyond the protagonist’s tortured mindset. Furthermore, Alper avoids clichés by treating nature as a sublime but choking force, which ensconces Aram’s desires for autonomy and independence at a comparable level of suffocation as the Turkish government. The titular memories, then, are less sweet reminders of an innocent past than forceful imperatives of consciousness that resolutely place Aram within an inescapable present.
The Marrakech International Film Festival ran from December 4—12.