Alaa Eddine Aljem’s debut is a calling card for the young Moroccan director

THE UNKNOWN SAINT (c) Le Moindre Geste - Altamar films

Source: Le Moindre Geste/Altamar Films

‘The Unknown Saint’

Dir. Alaa Eddine Aljem. Morocco, France, Qatar. 2019. 100 mins

With its arid humour and sparse simplicity, this amusing first feature is filmmaking which works in near perfect harmony with its backdrop: the baked bones of desert country in Morocco’s South. An opening sequence sets up the story: a car coughs to a halt, a dishevelled man with a holdall leaps out and sweats up the nearest hill. There he buries the bag, disguising it as a grave, just as the police arrive to arrest him. Several years later, the man emerges from prison and returns to the spot to claim his loot. But a mausoleum has been built over the mound, and a thriving village has grown up catering to the pilgrims who visit “the grave of the unknown saint”. What follows is a collision between piety and absurdity; religious devotion and naked greed.

A likeable if unassuming picture

Selling points for the film will be its combination of deadpan comedy and a distinctive satirical perspective on rural Moroccan society. Low key it may be, but the picture has something to say about faith, superstition and the way that money encroaches on the territory which was previously inhabited by religion alone. A warm reception on the festival circuit seems likely. And while it perhaps lacks the assertiveness to break through to arthouse theatrical audiences, the film could earn modest rewards for the right distributors.

Younes Bouab brings an expressive, almost Keatonesque physicality to the role of the Thief. Like most of the characters, he is never named – Aljem prefers to deal with archetypes, deliberately restricting the back story and characterisation. We learn about each of the men – and they are almost all men – in the story from the way they react to the faintly ludicrous situations in which they find themselves. It works well, this uncluttered economy of storytelling. Aljem leaves space in the frame and in the edit for eloquent, but largely wordless responses – in Bouab’s case, it’s usually a kind of pained incredulity at his own bad fortune which makes him droop to the very tips of his moustache.

As the Thief, assisted by his slow-witted colleague Ahmed The Brain (Salah Bensalah), ponders a way of retrieving his bag of cash, other characters are woven into the story. A new doctor (Anas El Baz) is dispirited by the fact that his main role in the community seems to be to provide entertainment for the local grannies, who fake ailments in order to come and grin toothlessly at him. He forms a largely alcohol-based alliance with his practice nurse (Hassan Ben Bdida) in order to combat the crushing boredom. The night watchman at the mausoleum adores his dog to such an extent that he has false teeth made of gold crafted for the animal after it is injured in a traffic accident. A father and son pray for rain after a decade without. And the enterprising villagers cash in on the reputed miraculous healing properties of the mysterious saint in the unmarked grave on the hill, cheerfully fleecing the devotees who believe the manufactured myths.

Slight, almost skeletal storytelling is given body by an economic but effective rippling score. And Aljem’s pleasing use of rhythms and repetition further adds appeal to this likeable if unassuming picture. If nothing else, this will be a persuasive calling card for writer and director Aljem.

Production companies: Le Moindre Geste Productions, Altamar Films

International sales: The Match Factory

Producers: Francesca Duca, Alexa Rivero

Screenplay: Alaa Eddine Aljem

Editing: Lilian Corbeille

Cinematography: Amine Berrada

Production design: Kaoutar Haddioui

Music: Amine Bouhafa

Main cast: Younes Bouab, Salah Bensalah, Bouchaib Essamak, Mohamed Naimane, Anas El Baz, Hassan Ben Bdida, Abdelghani Kitab, Ahmed Yarziz