The Unknown Saint

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Unknown Saint
"The situation is ripe with ridiculousness, but Aljem shows a lot of restraint." | Photo: Courtesy of La Semaine de la Critique

The humour in Alaa Eddine Aljem's debut feature is as bone dry as the landscape that provides the backdrop for the action and continually makes its presence felt. And it's here that we first meet the Amine (referred to simply as The Thief in the credits and played by Younes Bouab), driving frantically into the middle of nowhere on the run from the police. After finding a tree on a hill - the only apparent landmark in an otherwise barren spot - and burying his loot in the nick of time, he marks it like a grave, just as the cops arrive.

A quick cut to the end of his sentence and Amine is keen to retrieve his stash, when he arrives at the place, however, he finds not the isolated spot that he remembers but a prettily painted mausoleum to an "Unknown Saint", which has also led to a nearby village springing up to service passing pilgrims. With worshippers coming to take the waters by day and a guard (Abdelghani Kitab) and his dog patrolling at night, getting the swag back looks increasingly difficult and results in Amine and his accomplice The Brain (Salah Bensalah) taking lodgings in the village, which comes fully equipped with additional absurd characters.

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Among them is a newly arrived doctor (Anas El Baz), who soon realises his surgery is only a "hangout place" for ladies, who if they are really ill would rather put their faith in that saint on the hill, and his male nurse (Hassan Ben Bdida), who staves off the boredom with rubbing alcohol and weed in between handing out the same yellow packs of tablets to all-comers. Offering a touch of added pathos are Hassan (Bouchaib Essamak) and his father Brahim (Mohamed Naimane), the younger man trying to get the older one to move but facing an uphill struggle in the face of his dad's faith that rain will come - despite the fact there hasn't been any for 10 years.

The situation is ripe with ridiculousness, but Aljem shows a lot of restraint. His scenes are shot in a spare way, with minimal clutter and he's happy to wait for a joke to pay off. The satire is light and aimed at people rather than religion, pointing out the absurd way in which faith and superstitions can be quickly adopted in such a wholehearted manner it's hard not to be drawn into it even if you think it's hokum. There is some predictability here - and, indeed, knowing where certain things are going ahead of time is a deliberate part of the fun - but Aljem keeps his powder dry on a few suprises.

The writer/director spent time developing the script at the Sundance labs and the film could easily slot in with that festival's American regulars, although it features a refreshing mix of universal and more regional, but understandable, gags - such as when the doctor asks his nurse: "Why are you wearing black?" only to receive the answer: "I'm Shiite". The spare scoring from Amine Bouhafa also has a whisper of the Old West about it, perfectly matching the dusty backdrop.

The film plays out like a modern-day fable, focused on the follies of men and the laws of unintended consequences, and its generosity to its characters, however dimwitted they may be, makes a welcome change from the more acidly cynical tone films like this often adopt.

Reviewed on: 16 May 2019
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Moments before his capture by police, a thief digs a grave to hide a bag of money. Released from prison years later he returns to retrieve the bag, only to find a shrine to an Unknown Saint build directly over his loot, and a brand new village constructed all around it.

Director: Alaa Eddine Aljem

Writer: Alaa Eddine Aljem

Starring: Younes Bouab, Salah Ben Saleh, Bouchaib Semmak, Mohammed Nouaimane, Anas El Baz, Abdelghani Kitab, Hassan Ben Badida, Ahmed Yarziz, Younes Bouab, Salah Ben Saleh, Bouchaib Semmak, Mohammed Nouaimane, Anas El Baz, Abdelghani Kitab, Hassan Ben Badida

Year: 2019

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Morocco, France, Qatar, Germany, Lebanon

Festivals:

Cannes 2019

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