July 1, 2009 / 4:38 AM / 10 years ago

"Casanegra" shows storied city in realistic light

TAORMINA, Italy (Hollywood Reporter) - The likes of Bogey and Bergman are nowhere to be seen in Nour Eddine Lakhmari’s tour through the nocturnal underbelly of Casablanca, or “Casanegra,” as the city’s underclasses call it. Lakhmari picked up the prize for best director at the Taormina festival for this film about two childhood friends, young men striving to rise above the surrounding squalor.

Moroccan films usually are relegated to art-house cinemas, but “Casanegra” is hip, stylish and engaging enough to break out further — if it weren’t for its two-hour running time. Lakhmari takes too long to set up the main premise, and then too long to see it through, though offering some Coen-esque characters and social criticism along the way.

The film begins with the protagonists running from the police, then flashes back to explain how they got there. Adil (Omar Lotfi) lives with his mother and violent stepfather and dreams of moving to Sweden. Karim (Anas Elbaz) is secretly in love with an older, upper-class French woman, and his family struggles with the burden of his sick father.

The two make petty money through petty crimes, some for local heavy Zrirek (a deliciously over-the-top Mohamed Benbrahim), whose sadism is equaled only by his neurotic love for his little dog.

The more street-smart Karim is leery of getting further involved with Zrirek, but Adil needs to score big to buy fake documents for Sweden, and hopes to take his buddy with him. You know things will go downhill when Adil talks his friend into accepting just one big job that will solve all their troubles.

The film caused a scandal at home, presumably for offering a different view of the infamous city. Like Lakhmari’s antiheroes, no one in the developing or developed world wants to work menial jobs anymore, and class divisions widen especially in poorer countries. Even Karim, the brains of the duo, would rather continue selling contraband cigarettes than gut fish for his father’s exploitative former employer.

The acting from newcomers Lotfi and Elbaz is first-rate. Their chemistry is good, and they easily walk that fine line of making audiences care about two characters with relatively flexible morals. Shot mostly at night, the film has a palette of mostly seedy yellows and washed-out blues.

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