Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 26, 2016 12:51 pm 
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Dense, humane, portrait of Moroccan prostitutes banned at home

This film about a group of prostitutes in Marrakech and their driver-protector Said (Abdellah Didane) may not provide strikingly new information about the life, but, apart from being controversial (it's banned in Morocco), it represents a tour-de-force of fiction-documentary storytelling and an act of humanity and sympathy. It may make you think of the more visually striking anamorphic lens iPhone6 movie Tangerine, but in cast and mise-en-scène the latter is far less complex and ambitious. Highlights of Much Loved are a profitable night-and-day party-and-sex scene with rich Saudis in their rented villa; time spent in a nightclub with older French guys; the arrival of a plump, pregnant, destitute girl from the sticks called Hilma (Sara Elhamdi Elalaoui), whom the more experienced women adopt and rename "Ahlam"; one woman's gradual rejection by her impoverished mother; another's longed-for first lesbian experience; a tran "sister" friend; and a riotous holiday trip of the four women with Said, in a fancy uniform, driving a rented limo, to a posh hotel in Agadir. There are inevitable run-ins with the police, and a cop who takes advantage of his power to demand sex. And the aging Frenchman (Carlo Brandt, who resembles Jean Reno), a married man who claims to be in love with the lead whore, Noha (Loubna Abidar), but is just a drag. There is a younger man who is crazy about one of the other "girls" and waits around for her for hours. One common thread: the way, in a harsh world of demanding or cruel johns, the women create their own solidarity and warmth among themselves.

In the car on the way to the Saudis' villa the women talk in gross language about money and little dicks, which some prefer: they do less damage to the equipment. The "games" the Saudis play together with the "girls" are humiliating, but they lionize the beauty and freedom of the Moroccan women, while the "girls" praise the Saudis for their beautiful money. Sokaïna (Halima Karaouane) thinks she's found a sweet deal when she pairs off with Ahmed (Lebanese-born California actor Danny Boushebel) who acts romantic but can't get it up. Later when she discovers he jacks off to gay porn the reason for his non-performance is revealed and in a rage he beats her up. It's at hospital emergency that the girls first meet and subsequently rescue and adopt Hilma/Ahlam. Hilma, whose country style makes her a friendly source of humor, turns out to be a prostitute too. Her manner's rock-bottom basic. She approaches three men standing on the street and says, "Which of you wants to fuck me?" She gets a farmer who does her in his truck and pays only 100 dirhans ($10), so she demands more and he gives her 10 kilos of produce.

Much Loved doesn't tell a story. It references a whole bunch of stories. As the admiring French critics note, it gives us both documentary realism and romance, harshness and pain but also warmth and humor. Its most notable quality is its sheer density. You begin watching expecting something distasteful, and part of it is. But then you are drawn in, and it becomes fascinating. Thanks to the handheld digital camera, you forget, for stretches anyway, that you're watching a movie and you're just there. The saddest scenes are the visits of queen bee Noha dressed in chaste hijab to a poor part of Marrakech to see her younger sister and little boy and mother, trying to maintain connection with family and finding the connection isn't there. Word is out on the street, via le téléphone arabe, about who and what Noha is, and her mother tells her not to come around any more. At the other extreme are the times of hilarity and togetherness. In between are the transactions with men, some pleasant, some not. Ayouch's main actresses, recruited from non-professionals, are both beautiful and real.

This is the 46-year-old Parisian-born, Casablanca-resident Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch's seventh film. Three have been Moroccan submissions to the Oscars, but he seems little known in this country. The humanity and warm rhythms recall Hector Babenco's picture of street kids, Pixote, and Ayouch made a film about a gang of boys himself, the 2000 Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, and one would like to see that. But I'm guessing Much Loved may be the filmmaker's most mature, technically assured, and bravest work yet.

Much Loved, 105 mins., debuted in Directors Fortnight at Cannes 2015 with four award nominations; shown at nine other festivals including Toronto and London. Released in France 16 Sept. 2015 it received acclaim from critics (AlloCiné press rating 4.1 averaged from 25 reviews). Many note the film's sympathetic understanding and lack of immorality or prurience. Banned in Morocco and described by the government as "a grave insult to moral values." Screened for this review as part of the 2016 New York Film Society of Lincoln Center-UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, shown to the public Thurs. Mar. 10 at 7 p.m. and Fri. Mar. 11 at 4 p.m.

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