May 15, 2019
‘The Unknown Saint’ Review: A Searing Dark Comedy That Recalls the Best of the Coen Brothers [Cannes]
Getting the tone right of a black comedy is excruciatingly hard. Go off too far in one direction and it becomes a maudlin mess, too far the other and it feels churlish or mean, making light of a serious situation rather than maintaining that delicate balance that’s satiric rather than scornful. Add religion and faith into the mix and you’ve got pitfalls deep enough to fell even masters of the form. The fact that a first time filmmaker, Alaa Eddine Aljem, manages such a magic trick with his debut The Unknown Saint is thus all the more reason to worship this gem of a film.
Aljem’s story borrows the quiet surrealism of the Coen Brothers to tell the tale of a thief (Younes Bouab) who climbs a hill to bury some loot beside a gnarled tree. Thinking quickly, the thief masks the digging as a burial complete with a roughly hewn rock for a headstone. Arrested by the police but with the lucre safely ensconced, he does his short prison term and returns to reclaim his bounty, finding there’s a small, white-walled building at the site, covering what’s purported by locals to be the resting place of an unknown saint whose very presence grants miracles.
From here Aljem’s film gently but persuasively pokes fun at the trappings of religion and the foibles of humanity while simultaneously illustrating the true power of resilience and faith from those unswayed by the more showy aspects of local custom. In the small town that’s grown up around the shrine there are barbers and religious figures, hoteliers, German shepherd dogs and bored women looking to doctor’s visits in order to waste some time, each in their own way influenced by the appearance and attributions of this shrine. Throughout this well drawn slice of small town life is contrasted with the regular struggles of those from an area not far away that have not abandoned their old location in favour of the promise of miracle, eking out what seems a futile mission of tilling land parched by drought while praying for rain.
It’s this contrast between those looking for a quick fix versus those more quietly committed that gives the film its most acerbic bite. Throughout there are farcical moments where the thief and his colleague see their plans thwarted again and again, succumbing in their own way to the lure of the myth that they know fundamentally is built upon a falsehood.
Beautifully shot in the desert of Morocco, Aljem’s camera often lingers with great circumspection, allowing the scene to play out and the humans to get into trouble without the need for cinematic histrionics. Rather than coming across as stagey or dull, the precision of composition is welcome, especially from a debut film where often the desire is to throw everything at the screen all at once.
The performances of the ensemble are terrific, each providing a kind of world weariness that’s captivating. The secular cares of the thief are contrasted both by the histrionics of those looking for a quick miracle and a farmer who patiently and against all odds wishes for the waters to fall from heaven. There’s some pretty daring humour throughout – a joke about black-wearing Shiite lands particularly well – teasing not religion and custom in and of itself but the distortion of these entirely human frailties contrasted to a more “pure” and quiet connection between our existence and the forces, often chaotic and arbitrary, that shape it.
A smart producer would snag up rights to this film, as its universality of message is by no means localized to its North African roots. That said, there’s enough wonderful local texture and sun-drenched actuality that it speaks wonderfully to its Moroccan origins. Too often films from the region are more staid about such matters, but the film’s bold sardonicism shatters stereotypical notions of what can be crafted in the area that has too often seen such daring ideas muted.
The allusion to the Coens goes deeper than its tragicomic surface may suggest. Look to the criminally underloved A Serious Man for a similar balance between faith and fate, No Country For Old Men for the travails of buried treasure, or even the barber of The Man Who Wasn’t There and the desert-based lunacy of Raising Arizona for further evidence of the Coenesque DNA embedded in The Unknown Saint. That’s not to say that Aljem’s work is heavy handedly referential, simply the warm recognition that a tale that feels entirely endemic to its environment nonetheless speaks to these universal notions of absurdity and angst.
A blistering debut by an international filmmaker to watch, Aljem’s movie terrific belies all expectations, crafting a supremely entertaining and visually compelling film. For a debut to be this assured, and for a script to so deftly dance around the obvious challenges and result in a film that’s delightfully, darkly comedic, The Unknown Saint shows that despite all the obvious ways in which this work could have gone horribly, risibly wrong in these rare cases miracles can come true.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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