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French Version

Invisible boundaries between extremes

In Laila Marrakchi's 'Marock,' open-mindedness meets taboo in a clash with no clear winner

"Why don't you convert? It's easy. All you have to do is utter one phrase in Arabic and you're a Muslim," Rita tells her Jewish boyfriend in an intimate scene toward the end of the Moroccan film "Marock," which screened Thursday at Cinema Six Sofil in Achrafieh as part of the seventh edition of the Beirut International Film Festival.

The scene elicits an upsurge of laughter from audiences, as the 17-year-old character devises what seems like the perfect solution to the sensitive problem of inter-faith marriage in the Arab world.

Shot in Casablanca, "Marock" is a French-Moroccan production in which director Laila Marrakchi removes the veil on a city of contradictions where high school seniors drink alcohol, listen to loud music and live for adventure against the backdrop of traditional society. It is Marrakchi's first full-length feature, following two short films - "L'Horizon Perdu" (2000) and "Deux Cent Dirhams" (2002).

"Marock" opens with a man praying in a parking lot. Rita, meanwhile, is shown kissing another young man in a car. A policeman approaches and, because the two are unmarried, threatens to detain them. Rita responds with attitude, a verbal clash with the policeman ensues and she stalks off, defiant, the scene suggesting that she comes from a prominent family and is thus above the law.

Soon after and by chance, Rita locks eyes with Youri, a young Jewish Moroccan who later becomes her first love.

In the sequences that follow, Marrakchi introduces Rita's friends - who, like her, come from a milieu of affluence - and their lifestyle. The plot unfolds during the start of Ramadan, and Rita appears indifferent, even careless, in the face of religious tradition. Her lack of commitment and nonchalance is further encouraged by her busy father and socialite mother.

Not even the return of her brother Mau derails her racy behavior. He comes back to Casablanca from London. The viewer is made to understand that he has changed. He has become more conservative and adheres more strenuously to Islamic values than before. He fasts, he prays, he abstains from alcohol and insists on respect for women. But the overall treatment of his character is vague. Marrakchi doesn't explore his transformation, much less explain it.

But the same cannot be said for the director's treatment of class division, which Marrakchi delves into fully and meaningfully. "Marock" centers on wealthy Moroccans in Casablanca but at the same time, the film broadens its scope to show those who are living on the wrong side of the proverbial tracks. One of Rita's friends, for example, decides to marry a man she does not love because her father is bankrupt. She explains her decision by telling Rita: "Without money, you are no one here."

As Rita's relationship with Youri develops, Marrakchi's camera glances, however briefly, upon the conventions of Jewish life in Morocco, which serves to heighten the tension inherent to the couple's prohibited relationship.

Rita's family is considered open-minded, but when her parents discover her new romance, they forbid her from leaving home. Never mind that she has been running wild for years. At this point in the film, one realizes that all along there had been invisible boundaries that Rita cannot cross and which are definitely not based on religion alone.

Skillfully representing the extremes that exist on opposite ends of the lifestyle spectrum, Marrakchi's film dispatches an urgent message not only to Morocco but also to the rest of the Arab world. As the younger generation struggles for a sense of identity and belonging, some are finding solace in extremism, others refuge in indifference, but there is very little ground being cultivated in between.

Laila Marrakchi's "Marock" is screening again on Tuesday at Cinema Six Sofil. For more information, please call +961 1 202 411 or check out www.beirutfilmfoundation.org

Beirut,10 09 2006
Hassan Nasser
The Daily Star
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