“No one can steal from the Saint”
Moroccan director Alaa Edine Aljem’s debut film The Unknown Saint (French: Le miracle du saint inconnu, 2019) builds on the holiness of black art house comedies cauterising the common issues of blind faith, superstition, and honesty beneath the relentless sun of the Agafay desert. Paying tribute to the minimalist and deadpan work of Aki Kaurismaki, the film starts off with a simple idea that is highly indicative of Aljem’s flair for directing and screenwriting.
Minutes before getting arrested, a thief (Younes Bouab) buries his loot on top of a hill in the middle of the desert, marking it as a grave to conceal its true identity from unwanted gazes. Some years go by and upon his return, he is shocked to find a mausoleum raised on that very spot. Dedicated to the miraculous Unknown Saint, the temple has even led to the creation of a small village nearby, with its inhabitants spending days praying for miracles. At his wit’s end, the thief plots with his partner-in-crime, The Brain (Salah Ben Saleh), to outsmart the guard of the mausoleum (Abdelghani Kitab) along with his dog in order to retrieve the treasure before it is too late.
The Moroccan-French-Qatari co-production takes greed and faith and plunges them deep into the absurd. The Moroccan auteur’s subplots, which introduce us to the lives of a few local villagers, miss their chance to complement the warped shape of the main arc. This, in turn, causes the plot to flounder quite early on. A charming doctor (Anas el Baz), with his array of almighty pills, is the undeniable star of the plot’s many subsidiaries. The presence of the others, including a father and his son praying for the rain to come, get quite tedious after a while, needlessly breaking the rhythm of the comedy.
The general offbeat, satirical aura of The Unknown Saint is supported by the lean, minimalist setting and the self-deprecating humour that makes the almost entirely male world an absorbing display. Amine Berrada’s cinematography turns the arid desert landscape into an exotic postcard scene, only enhanced by moments of silence and the cast’s perfectly tuned body language.
Ahmed Yarziz is a comedic gem as the barber/dentist, with his special shaving foam and canine dentistry plans. Meanwhile, the deadpan dialogue takes on an air of vigorous slaps, smacking illogical cohesion into the film – one that only makes sense to our hapless heroes, forever plagued by their sins and illusions.
The ending, unfortunately, fails to live up to the expectations set by the carefully curated story. Having indulged the absurdity of the plot with wondrous care, the final scenes rebuff irrationality in favour of practically. Perhaps due to its abrupt need to both ridicule blind faith and acknowledge spirituality, The Unknown Saint manages to highlight all the elements of contemporary Moroccan society that aim to find a balance between the country’s traditional past and the new century.
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