Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Laila Marrakchi
Stars: Morjana Alaoui, Hiam Abbass, Nadine Labaki, Omar Sharif.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before – a family patriarch dies and the family gathers to mourn and grieve. But soon the family gathering is overshadowed by family secrets, lies, arguments and disappointments that emerge and bitter resentments erupt while a few skeletons in the closet are rattled. What sets Rock The Casbah apart from others in the pack is the fact that this French-Moroccan coproduction is set in Morocco, and deals with a number of culturally specific themes, values and issues as well – such as the role of women in society, the clash of cultures between east and west, and religion.
As the Hassan family gathers, youngest daughter Sofia (Morjana Alaoui, from the horror film Martyrs, etc) flies in from New York. Several years ago she fled her homeland to journey to America where she has carved out a career for herself as an actress, mainly working in television. The fact that she is largely typecast as a terrorist doesn’t sit well with her family, who criticise her choices. Nor does the fact that she has married an American film director and has not been home for years.
The film begins with an opening montage depicting people swimming in the ocean and cavorting on a pristine beach, accompanied by the dulcet tones of the title tune from the Bing Cosby and Bob Hope movie Road To Morocco. But this deceptively idyllic sequence soon gives way to darker territory as we delve deeper beneath the surface of this troubled family. During the three days though the truth also emerges about the suicide of Sofia’s sister Leila.
And there are other startling and unexpected revelations that shake the family. What role does Zakaria (Adel Bencherif), the brooding son of the family’s long time housekeeper, have to play in the events that are unfolding?
Rock The Casbah is the sophomore feature film from Moroccan born filmmaker Laila Marrakchi, and it would seem that much of the emotionally charged material may be semi-autobiographical in nature. She has crafted the script along with French horror director Alexandro Aje, who is credited as a script consultant, but it is a little uneven in tone. Not to be confused with the song from The Clash or an Israeli film with the same title, the film is melodramatic in tone, albeit tinged with generous lashings of humour. Marrackchi is also keen to explore the rising tide of feminism in an otherwise fairly conservative Muslim country, which adds another rich texture to the drama.
Marrakchi has assembled a strong female ensemble cast to flesh out the characters. Nadine Labaki, who is well known as a director in her own right with films like Caramel to her credit, steals many scenes with her performance as the bitchy and vain Miriam who has undergone breast augmentation surgery. Israeli actress Hiam Abbass (Lemon Tree, etc) brings a steely quality and gravitas to her performance as the stoic matriarch with strict moral values, who has to bring the family together in this time of grief and crisis.
Veteran Omar Sharif (Lawrence Of Arabia, Dr Zhivago, etc) has a small role here as the family patriarch who spends most of the time as a ghostly presence watching as his dysfunctional family gathers for the three day traditional burial ceremony. Sharif has a twinkle in his eye and brings a nicely mischievous presence to the material.
The film has been nicely shot on location in picturesque Tangiers by cinematographer Pierric Gantelmi d’Ille (Mesrine, etc), who brings a strong sense of place to the material.
But in the end, RocK The Casbah seems familiar and somewhat predictable.