Sunday, December 14, 2008

NYADFF: Where Are You Going Moshe?

Sharia law is not much fun, even for Muslims. Just ask the good citizens of the provincial Moroccan town of Bejjad. To keep their neighborhood bar open, they will resort to desperate measures, including protecting the town’s last Jewish resident in Hassan Benjelloun’s Where are You Going Moshe, which screened at the New York African Diaspora Film Festival.

It might not be as popular as Rick’s in Casablanca but the bar owned by the Frenchman Pierre does a good business. According to the local penal code, the sale of alcohol is expressly permitted to non-Muslims, so as long as there are Jews and Christians still living in Bejjad, the bar stays open. Unfortunately, the dying Pierre will just barely outlive the late King Mohammed V, who was considered the protector of Morocco’s Jewish population. With his death, the Jews of the newly independent state concluded it was time to get out while the getting was good. When the last one leaves Bejjad, the bar closes, which much distresses Mustapha, the prospective new owner.

However, there is one lone holdout. Though an ardent supporter of Israel, Shlomo’s heart and his music are in Bejjad, which serves Mustapha’s purposes. Rechristened Chez Shlomo, the last Jew in Bejjad holds court every night, playing his beloved oud, for his grateful Muslim friends. Of course, the religious authorities are less than thrilled with the relationship, leading to concerns for Shlomo’s safety.

Though very real, the film downplays Shlomo’s potential peril, preferring to keep the tone light. In fact, it is quite charming. It has much the same appeal of a film like The Band’s Visit, but might be even more commercial. Moshe takes the audience back to a gentler time, when Jews and Muslims could be friends and neighbors, without considering it any big deal. Obviously, that changed in Morocco. As a voiceover explains following the opening credits, the country’s Jewish population numbered over 300,000 in 1945, whereas now it is about one percent of that figure.

Actor and oud player Simon Elbaz brings true soul to the role of Shlomo. Like a graduating college student, he knows he has to move on, but cannot bear to leave the site of so many important memories. It is a richly human performance. Indeed, the entire ensemble cast credibly brings the town of Bejjad to life on the screen, under Benjelloun’s sensitive direction.

To his credit, Benjelloun treats his characters with respect, avoiding stereotypes altogether. It is encouraging to see such a movie produced in Morocco, but controversy surrounding the title somewhat tempers one’s optimism. Benjelloun’s first title, My Brother the Jew was evidently nixed by the Moroccan government. (Of course, our protagonist is named Shlomo. There is a Moshe, but he is a minor character, Bejjad’s barber, who leaves in the first wave of clandestine immigration. Maybe Moshe sounded less Jewish than Shlomo to the censors.)

Regardless of titles, Benjelloun’s film itself is wise and gentle. It tackles some tricky issues, but deftly maintains its light touch. Probably the best film of the festival, Moshe screened during the NYADFF’s special Night in Morocco. This year’s NYADFF concludes with special screenings today and Tuesday night.