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French Version

A stylish thriller for contemporary Casablanca

Faouzi Bensaidi's second feature film choreographs the incongruities of urban life with intimacy and elegance

Splice the next generation of James Bond films into Wong Kar Wai's "Fallen Angels" and Elia Suleiman's "Chronicle of a Disappearance" and you might approximate the style and substance of Faouzi Bensaidi's second feature film. Equal parts thriller, romance and farce, Bensaidi's "WWW: What a Wonderful World" was one of 15 films competing at the sixth edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival.

To win, it would have had to have muscled past such films as Robert Favreau's "A Sunday in Kigali" (a love story set amid the Rwandan genocide), Radu Muntean's "The Paper Will Be Blue" (capturing the confusion that accompanied the 1989 Romanian revolution) and Dominik Graf's "The Red Cockatoo" (about passion and politics in the state formerly known as East Germany).

In other words, among a field of sociopolitical dramas, Bensaidi's film - and the delicious art direction it emanates from start to finish - was never more than a long shot. What's more, he's local.

This year's Marrakech film festival pulled in a wildly international crowd, with films from the US and Europe to Iran and Southeast Asia competing for the Golden Star (which went to Graf), the jury prize (which went to Muntean) and awards for best male and female performance (won by Max Riemelt of "The Red Cockatoo" and Fatou N'Diaye of "A Sunday in Kigali," respectively).

The festival was woefully short, however, on films from the Arab world. "Wonderful World" was one of just two, both Moroccan. Apparently that in itself was a coup - usually only one local film is accepted into the competition.

Critics tend to lump Bensaidi in with the so-called new generation of Moroccan filmmakers - a generation as young as the film festival itself. Bensaidi bristles at the association.

"I'm a solitary man," he says on the sidelines of Marrakech. "I have a real problem with belonging. I can't belong to a group. I have an excellent rapport with the filmmakers of my generation, but I'm not sure we share the same choices or ideas or views on cinema. We are not the nouvelle vague [new wave] and in certain ways this is good. This is freedom. The new generation doesn't have a common direction and it's a plus because it brings lots of diversity."

"Wonderful World" is worlds away from Narjiss Nejjar's "Wake Up Morocco," which made its world premiere at Marrakech last week. A beautifully shot film about the dreams and disappointments at play among the residents of a small island off Casablanca, "Wake Up Morocco" veers sharply into well-intended but heavy-handed nationalist polemic.

While Nejjar seems hell-bent on speaking of and for her country, Bensaidi seems rakishly indifferent, or at least concerned with the intimacy of the urban over the sprawl of the nation.

For Bensaidi to beat Nejjar in competition would have caused a scandal. Beyond festival politics, it's pertinent to wonder: How Moroccan is "Wonderful World" - given that Bensaidi's vibe and visual language span from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, touching down on Casablanca in between?

The film features an assortment of characters whose lives intersect by choice or coincidence. Kamel (played by Bensaidi) takes his cues from signs he sees in the world around him, whether emblazoned onto a T-shirt or etched into the film stock of an old Bollywood movie.

He matches the signs to serial numbers listed in a little black book. Then he uses the serial numbers as passwords to log onto a secure Web site. From there, he gets his assignment - a name, a face, a location, a hit.

Kamel is a contract killer fine-tuned to the technological, decentralized age of the Internet. We never come to learn who he's working for, only that there are enough despised men in his orbit to keep him gainfully employed.

After each assassination, Kamel calls Souad (Fatima Attif), who works an assortment of odd jobs, including domestic and commercial service and occasional prostitution. Kamel - mysterious and handsome, tall and lithe, with light eyes and the crescent moons of insomnia chiseled beneath - is Souad's favorite client.

They meet in his rooftop apartment, which has a panoramic view of Casablanca - perpetually infused with deep blue, whether day or night, and lit by the orange glow of a sign advertising a brand of lemonade long off the market.

When their time is up, Kamel literally dumps Souad from his wire-framed bed. It's a rude and unceremonious goodbye, but still, she has a soft spot for him and continues to take his calls.

She does not, however, have her own mobile phone. Instead, she has Kenza (Nezha Rahil), her best friend who, in the off hours from her day job as a traffic cop, charges an assortment of friends and neighbors a small fee for the use of her cell.

The more Kamel calls Souad, the more he hears Kenza's voice. The more he hears her voice, the more he falls in love with her. Like Kamel, Kenza has deep grooves in her cheeks that make her look as if she has not slept in a hundred years.

Meanwhile, Hicham (El-Mehdi Elaaroubi) is an adolescent so desperate to emigrate that he becomes an adept at hacking into computer systems. Mostly he's trying to forge a letter of employment from an Italian company, any Italian company.

One day, he accidentally cracks the Web site from which Kamel receives his assignments. When an attempt to flee Morocco by sea goes wrong, Hicham exacts revenge on the man who took everything from him and his father by slotting his profile into Kamel's site.

Kamel senses a glitch in the system. He doesn't catch sight of the sign smoothly in the course of his day; Hicham slams it down on a cafe table in front of him. Kamel goes ahead with the hit anyway, albeit distracted by his pursuit of Kenza. It all ends in tragedy, one orchestrated to luscious visual perfection.

Bensaidi wrote, directed and starred in "Wonderful World." He also took care of the editing, in collaboration with Veronique Lange. He inserts himself into the film as a stoic character, around whom the action churns.

Like Elia Suleiman's characters in "Chronicles of a Disappearance" and "Divine Intervention," Kamel slides gracefully from one end of the frame to the other as all manner of incongruities erupt in between.

Throughout "Wonderful World" there are hints that all is not well in Morocco. Crime is rampant, and every character resorts to it to survive. Destitution and the absence of meaningful employment are evident. Demonstrations roll in and out of certain scenes like a travelling circus that hits the same small town over and over again.

Bensaidi plays up confrontations between throngs of young men and security services to hilarious effect. There are simply too many young men. With the right resolve, they overtake any emblem of authority.

In addition to the lights, the colors and the stylized set pieces, Bensaidi's strength lies in his exuberant flourishes of visual choreography.

The scenes of Kenza performing her duties as a traffic cop are arrestingly beautiful. From her perch in the middle of a huge roundabout, she turns congested urban traffic into a stunning kaleidoscope, imposing not just order but elegance with the slow rotation of her wrist or the elongated angle of her arm.

"I like ... to be the different one," says Bensaidi. "I think the film is a little bit like a turbulent child in a classroom. I never learned anything in cinema. I don't believe in experience or wisdom. I believe in freshness. I want to keep this look, this freshness, without any learning experience."

Bensaidi may not encapsulate the dreams of a nation in his film, but he does give a city room to breathe.

"Casablanca is like a character," he says. "I shoot Casablanca like an actress. She's like a star with a lot of capriciousness. Sometimes she doesn't want to work. Sometimes she doesn't want to give her face to the camera. Sometimes I feel I have to manage her. I feel I have a human relationship with the city."

Faouzi Bensaidi's "WWW: What a Wonderful World" will be released in Morocco on December 13, and in France on January 10

Beirut,12 12 2006
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star
ebizproduction is supported by "Le Conseil Régional de la Région
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