British-Moroccan film-maker Fyzal Boulifa made an impressive debut three years ago with Lynn + Lucy, his social-realist psychodrama of female friendship on an Essex housing estate.
This follow-up, showing in the Venice Critics’ Week sidebar, is every bit as impressive: an intimate, poignant and even tragic study of a mother-son relationship set in Morocco. It is humane, richly involving and powerfully acted by two headliners making their screen debut.
Selim (Adbellah El Hajjouji) is a teenage boy who lives with his middle-aged mum Fatima-Zahra (Aicha Tebbae) in a tiny rented room. They share a mattress on the floor to sleep, like a married couple. One morning, Fatima-Zahra tells her trusting boy that she is off for a “job interview”, although he is baffled that she needs quite so much jewellery and makeup for something like this. In fact, she is heading for an assignation to sell sex, a meeting that ends in shocking violence, and then with mother and son decamping to live somewhere new. Selim is quite used to them endlessly moving from place to place.
But when Fatima-Zahra shows up at her elderly father’s house, expecting free accommodation for a while, her sour-faced sister is deeply irritated to see them and it is from their angry confrontation that Selim overhears the truth about his parentage and that his whole life has been based on a lie. The now deeply estranged mother and son have no choice but to keep moving: to worldly Tangier, where Selim also ends up selling sex – while hating himself for something he has learned from his mother – and being what amounts to a kept houseboy to wealthy white Frenchman, Sébastien (Antoine Reinartz), who has refurbished a riad in the Medina. Meanwhile, Fatima-Zahra has formed a relationship with the solemnly religious but married bus driver who brought them to Tangier in the first place.
Both Selim and Fatima-Zahra know that sex, love and somewhere to live are all very transactional arrangements. Selim himself knows that getting lucrative construction work with the westerners – who might also want sex – depends on being biddable, agreeable, speaking English or French, and being tolerant of their employers’ permissive ways. When Selim and Sébastien have sex, it is a moment fraught with colonial history. Fatima is aware of her own negotiations with the power relations of sex.
The film becomes a kind of diptych, a dual portrait of Selim and Fatima-Zahra and their respective sadnesses and antagonisms. Selim has so recently lost his innocence and Fatima-Zahra is poignantly trying to regain what remains of hers by finding some marital respectability. And perhaps it is only Selim’s bitter realisation of the truth that has enabled her to come out of denial about what her own life has been about: although, she – and we, the audience – are under no illusions about what male cruelty and male arrogance has done to them both.
Another excellent film from Boulifa who shows style and real storytelling verve.