A mother and son reside on the fringes of Moroccan society in Fyzal Boulifa’s impressive second feature

The Damned Don't Cry

Source: Venice Film Festival

‘The Damned Don’t Cry’

Dir/scr: Fyzal Boulifa. France/Belgium/Morocco. 2022. 111mins.

Fatima-Zahra (Aicha Tebbae) and her teenage son Selim (Abdellah El Hajjouji) might exist on the very fringes of conservative Moroccan society, rejected by family and scorned by neighbours. But that doesn’t stop the boy judging his mother by the very strictest of cultural codes — the same codes which damn him for his upbringing and inclinations. Fyzal Boulifa’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut Lynn + Lucy is a sensitive portrait of a complex mother-son relationship. A combination of co-dependency and mutually assured destruction, it’s a domestic set-up which, when coupled with a hand-to-mouth subsistence grind, makes for bleak viewing at times. But the fully lived-in performances from the impressive non-professional leads brings the film a fierce, thorny authenticity.

Caroline Champetier’s lithe camerawork emphasises the magnetism of these tricky, untrustworthy characters

The unflinching realism and studiously non-judgemental approach, in a film which foregrounds the lives of the kind of people whose stories rarely get told, should make this a title of interest on the festival circuit. Following its premiere in Venice’s Giornate degli Autori, The Damned Don’t Cry will show at the BFI London Film Festival. While it may struggle to match the impact and reach of Lynn + Lucy, this is the kind of intelligent, quality production which could achieve minor arthouse success, if astutely marketed.

In terms of toxicity and tempestuousness, the bad blood between flamboyant, flirtatious Fatima-Zahra and the sullen, stewing Selim could match anything that Xavier Dolan has explored in his similarly stormy mother-son dynamics. But unlike Dolan’s relatively liberal French-Canadian backdrop, the Morocco in which Fatima-Zahra and Selim struggle to survive is a rigidly unforgiving place. This gives the film’s queer subtext an added resonance — shame weighs heavily on both characters, but for Selim in particular it’s an intolerable burden.

And while Selim would never admit it, even to himself, the pair have much in common. Both construct an elaborate filigree of lies to conceal the truth about their lives. Fatima-Zahra has invented a dead husband and father for Selim — it’s only during a row with her estranged sister that the truth, that Selim was born as the result of a rape, comes out. The rape had further ramifications for Fatima-Zahra: as a single mother and ‘fallen’ woman, she is ostracised and forced to sell her body to survive. Selim also lies, about the circumstances of his new job working with French hotelier Sebastien (Antoine Reinartz) in his upscale restaurant in a chi-chi riad in Tangier’s old town. And this is another thing that mother and son have in common: both find themselves turning to sex work in times of desperation.

Caroline Champetier’s lithe camerawork emphasises the magnetism of these tricky, untrustworthy characters, the way they read a situation and respond to it, the better to make it work for their own ends. For all the lies they tell, though, there is a truth, on Fatima-Zahra’s side at least, in the smothering love she feels for her boy. For Selim, however, the dynamic is more complicated. He equates love with possession and ownership, which causes friction in his on-off relationship with Sebastien. His complicated feelings for his mother — a murky mess of anger, judgement, the desire to punish her for her failings, the need for her support, the need to escape from her — are no more knotty than his own churning self-loathing.

Production company: Vixens

International sales: Charades, carole@charades.eu

Producers: Karim Debbagh, Gary Farkas, Clement Lepoutre, Olivier Muller

Cinematography: Caroline Champetier

Production design: Samuel Charbonnot

Editing: Francois Quiquere

Music: Nadah El Shazly

Main cast: Aicha Tebbae, Abdellah El Hajjouji, Antoine Reinartz, Moustapha Mokafih, Walid Chaibi