Alaa Eldin Aljem’s debut feature is the rare Arab film that not only works as a meaningful comedy but also manages to be smart, audacious and contemplative.
Arab cinema has veered recently towards more serious, sometimes political and mostly social, commentary on issues that usually hit hard at home but also score a global following. From Palestine’s struggles, to Egypt’s uprisings, Syria’s civil war and the bloodshed in Yemen, the past ten years have been the kindest to Arab cinema in terms of global recognition. In the past ten years alone, more Arab films have scored Academy Award nominations than in the 80 years that preceded. Global viewers have become more appreciative of ‘commentary’ films particularly when they stick to realism.
In his debut feature, Alaa Eldin Aljem doesn’t attempt to create yet another one of those, not that there’s anything wrong with serious issue-films from the region. Instead, he crafts a comedy that takes taboo subjects, such as faith, one’s relationship with God and the widespread of myths and superstition in a region that still has dominant illiteracy in most of its rural regions.
The premise is simple: a thief buries money he had stolen just before going to jail. Years later, he is set free and attempts to retrieve the money back. Before being caught, he had buried the money bag on a neglected hill, only to find out upon his return that the hill has turned into a shrine to celebrate, or even worship, an unknown saint who is never named. In this intrigue, residents of this unnamed town find solace – someone to pray to, to lean on, to hold as an icon and a symbol for their faith. What should have been an easy task to retrieve a dusty bag with cash becomes an almost impossible mission: not only has the thief go against the town’s faith, he slowly starts to doubt whether the town folk may actually be right about that shrine being divine of some sort.
Being a debut feature, the film has some of the flaws one could expect from a first-time filmmaker: particularly the pacing and some repetitive scenes that needed trimming. But this never takes away from this fantastic contemplative experience about such a taboo subject in the Middle East: faith. Can people make faith? In the absence of a ‘sign’ that God exists, do they actually try to find one – or do they abandon the whole thought altogether?
Parallel characters experience faith, or rather lack of it, during this unconventional film and it works much more than it doesn’t because the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Most importantly, it doesn’t try to diminish or make fun of those who have faith or reject it – but it also doesn’t try to prove a point. In a Coens-Wes Anderson mix of styles, it offers observation, quirkiness, dry comedy but it never loses sight on the big questions it’s asking.
With excellent cinematography and an engaging score, The Unknown Saint is a promising first feature from a unique voice in Moroccan cinema and a fresh addition to an ever-growing list of Arab films that are getting festival exposure. It may not be for everyone, and its flaws and quirkiness will turn off viewers expecting more straightforward work, but it works because of its audacity and rare ability to ask big questions but never offend, be reflective but never pretentious, be funny but never jolting – and address an extremely delicate subject in engagingly provocative ways.