by Elena Lazic
- CANNES 2023: Faouzi Bensaïdi delivers an ambitious film of two halves set in the harsh Moroccan desert
With its vast expanses of beautiful but arid landscapes, the Moroccan desert is bound to have a profound psychological effect on anyone who ventures into it. Against nature’s enduring might, the pettiness of man’s daily concerns soon becomes apparent, and this can be hard to take. But for Mehdi (Fehd Benchemsi) and Hamid (Abdelhadi Taleb), the two central protagonists in Faouzi Bensaïdi’s Deserts [+see also:
interview: Faouzi Bensaïdi
film profile], this humbling is more immediate than for others. The two men drive around the inhospitable land in their beaten car and cheap suits, going from village to village to try and get villagers to pay back loans they could hardly ever afford. It’s a futile and absurd task that quickly pushes them to ridiculous extremes, and the first half of the film — premiering in Directors’ Fortnight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival — is an entertaining series of comical vignettes showing their exploits.
The cinematography by Florian Berutti (who is also behind the images of Directors’ Fortnight title The Other Laurens [+see also:
interview: Claude Schmitz
film profile]) renders the harsh beauty of the settings in almost overwhelming detail, and this air of majesty is one of very few hints that the goofiness on display may not last. Another signal is the film’s frequent departure from its observational style, with the camera at the distance from the characters to emphasising the pointlessness of their endeavour, in favour of closer compositions: suddenly, with Mehdi and Hamid’s faces more visible, they are no longer mere caricatures and objects of mockery, but individuals with real problems. If Mehdi is the most frenetic of the two, it’s for the simple reason that he has more to lose: with his wife away and potentially never coming back, he must provide for his young daughter alone.
The first half of Deserts is funny, but darkly so, the dire economic situation of the country the backdrop for all of the jokes. The sudden gear shift in the second half therefore feels like a strange choice; reiterating a similar point but in a much more serious and almost oneiric register, it demands quite a lot of patience from an audience that was up to that point accustomed to a more diverting, easygoing rhythm.
That sudden change of pace begins with the introduction of a third central, unnamed character (Rabii Benjhaile), an enigmatic stranger in handcuffs whom the duo accept to bring to the authorities in order to help the old man detaining him (and to secure the monetary reward). The style of the film here hardly changes — only the meanings and impressions it creates do. When previous comic moments unfolded without dialogue, the effect was to underline aspects of physical comedy; here, that same silence creates a much more ominous atmosphere, as the scenes which unfold have nothing funny about them at all. Likewise, the camera in this second half remains at a remove from the action, as it was during the more slapstick moments earlier on, but this distance now emphasises an unsettling feeling of powerlessness towards the violence unfolding on screen.
We learn across silent scenes simply juxtaposed to one another that the man in handcuffs has been forcibly separated from his wife by one of her suitors, who then forced her to marry him instead. When the mysterious stranger escapes from his two guardians, the film abandons them almost entirely to instead follow his quest, and enters a much more poetic realm. His story has the quality of a fable, perfectly in line with the solemn beauty of the images. But the shift in tone is so brutal that this second part of the film, coming as it does after the more dynamic first half, is difficult to fully appreciate. More importantly, the revelation near the end that this tale also had to do with debt and money is beautifully done, but does not truly add anything new. The stranger’s story may have been more romantic, and his behaviour more dignified than that of the peasants who tried to appeal to Mehdi and Hamid’s pity. But at the end of the day, his plight does not seem all that different from that of a poor man forced to give up his sheep or the rug his children sleep on.
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