Two films play in tandem in “The Gaze”: one, set in the past, is straightforward and affecting as it follows a 19-year-old French soldier witnessing his comrades’ brutality in occupied Morocco. The second, 50 years later, brings that soldier back to northern Africa to ease his remorse, but the intensity of the earlier period isn’t matched. Still, Moroccan-born Norwegian helmer Nour-Eddine Lakhmari crafts a worthy freshman feature (pic won the FICC prize at Tromso) that looks at the legacy of colonialism through righteous yet guilt-ridden eyes. Fests may take a look, but offshore screens are unlikely to get a glimpse.
Ten days before a major retrospective of his work, renowned Parisian photographer Albert Tueis (Jacques Zabor) flies to Morocco in search of an earlier part of his career.
As a young soldier (Florian Cadiou, from “The Dreamers”) with the occupying French forces, he was a photographer in his unit, mutely recording the atrocities committed by his fellow GIs. Now at age 70, he’s back for the first time, on a hunt for the photos he secreted away 50 years earlier.
The hiding place has been ransacked, but a small black-&-white photo he took of Moroccan prisoners turns up at a flea market, and sets Albert on a search for the rest. Distant and a bit harsh, he’s an object of fascination for local camera shop owner Reda (Abdellah Didane), who is awed by the great man and his magnificent old Rolliflex. Albert enables Reda’s Cyrano-like love for the bewitching dancer Aida (Keltoum Hajjami) so that Reda will help him trace the missing photos.
Pic shuttles back and forth between Albert in present and past. The flashbacks are the more effective, presenting an unflinching look at the brutality of the colonial troops and the quiet shock of the young photographer as he witnesses the degradation of the locals. Albert’s memories, especially of resistance fighter Issa Daoudi (Khalid Benchegra) and his penetrating accusatory gaze, continue to haunt him as he searches in the present for forgiveness.
Perhaps the older Albert is too cold a figure to generate the necessary sympathy, and side characters feel either underwritten (Aida) or, in the case of Reda, too timid and uncritically eager. The scenes from the past, with a soft-eyed Cadiou nervously photographing the horrors before him, speak more to the issue of colonialism’s insidiously dehumanizing force than the present-day journey Albert takes in the hopes of exorcising those ghosts.
Lakhmari makes good use of scope lensing, especially in alternating between intense close-ups and the barren landscape of the Moroccan desert. Oistein Boassen’s music is often too wistful and light for the serious subject matter.