Friday, November 02, 2012

Subjectivity III: Death for Sale

Malik and his shiftless friends cannot blame anyone but themselves for the hash they make of their lives, but that won’t stop them from trying.  Still, official corruption, rampant crime, and Islamist extremism will not help their prospects any in Faouzi Bensaïdi’s Death for Sale (trailer here), Morocco’s official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which screens during the third installment of MoMA’s Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s toNow.

Malik is on the dole and almost proud of it.  He and pickpocket Soufiane have just welcomed home their drug-dealing best friend Allal from a short prison stint. Together again, they have no real plan except more of the same.  However, things change when Malik falls for Dounia, a high class call girl working for a swanky night club.

When the crooked Inspector Debbouz (is there any other kind in the port city of Tetouan?) raids Dounia’s club, Malik cuts a deal, becoming an informer to secure her freedom.  He might be a snitch, but he is still lazy.  Fortunately, right about the time Debbouz starts strong-arming him information, his friends start plotting a doomed-to-fail heist.

Actually, the plan to rob a Christian jeweler would not be so bad, except the newly radicalized Soufiane is determined to murder their victim as revenge for Israel and the loss of Andalusia.  That makes no sense to his friends either, leaving Malik rather spooked.  In fact, Bensaïdi’s depiction of the Islamists is pretty gutsy.  Deliberately targeting vulnerable recruits (they rescued Soufiane from a possible lynching), they clearly operate in much the same manner as a cult.  Sale even features some nudity, of the attractive variety, which might even be more daring.

Unfortunately, Bensaïdi’s characters do not have a lot of zip to them.  Malik and his running mates are all rather generic losers: the brooding loverboy, the hulking thug, and the bullied juvenile delinquent.  Mouhcine Malzi probably fares the best as the savage but calculating Allal.  Frankly, Sale’s supporting cast is more intriguing.  Imane Elmechrafi’s Dounia is quite the alluring femme fatale, while Bensaïdi himself makes a drily understated villain as Debbouz.

The coolest thing about Sale is Bensaïdi’s sense of the local architecture, used to inventively frame shot after shot.  He and cinematographer Marc-Andre Batigne create some memorable images, but the criminal melodrama is pretty standard stuff.  Nonetheless, Bensaïdi’s disinclination to pander to regional paranoia and victimization tropes is rather refreshing.  At least an interesting site to behold, Death for Sale is one of two highlights for Subjectivity III, along with Raja Amari’s Buried Secrets.  It screens at MoMA this coming Sunday (11/4) and Thursday the 15th.