Moroccan director Farida Benlyazid uses the whiny voice of a priggish spinster from a “good family” (half-English, half-Spanish) to sketch 65 years of life in Tangiers in her adaptation of Angel Vazquez’s sprawling novel. While “The Wretched Life of Juanita Narboni” struggles to be an ironic comedy, its portrait of a woman unwilling to keep up with the times is uninvolving and schematic as it races through 20th century history. The good thing about this Spanish-Moroccan co-production is its real warmth for the city’s diversity. It should work best for programmers keen on North African product and women’s themes.
As in her previous films, “A Door on Heaven” and “Women’s Ruses,” Benlyazid is particularly interested in women’s position in Moroccan society. With Juanita (Mariola Fuentes), she explores the European influence that allows her petulant heroine a large sphere of movement, thanks to her liberal Anglo father who works in the consulate and her family’s colonial privileges. The problem is sexually repressed Juanita herself. Because of her strict upbringing, her ideas about being a proper member of good society grow increasingly antiquated as screen time marches on.
As a girl in 1938 Tangiers, she enviously watches her pretty sister Helena (Lou Doillon) go out with men. Per Juanita, this makes Helena a slut. During the Spanish Civil War, Tangiers is invaded by Franco’s troops (unseen) and Helena elopes. During WWII, refugees (again unseen) pour in from Europe. By 1965, Juanita is an eccentric old maid living on her dead father’s pension. She talks to herself and tipples quite a bit. Living alone with her faithful Moroccan maid Hamruch (Salima Ben Moumen), whom she barely knows after a lifetime, she blames her lonely existence on her upbringing. She is still muttering to herself when we leave her in the present day after independence, when Morocco has returned to its colorful Arab origins. Though still a lovely city, its glory days are over, and Juanita is a mere relic of a bygone era.
Gerardo Bellod’s screenplay is stretched thin as he tries to cover massive historical ground sans the big scenes. Characters just shake their heads over off-camera tragedies reported in the dialogue. Though this might have been a directing choice, it gives the impression of production difficulties.
All the interest centers on Fuentes’ theatrical perf as the malicious old biddy who talks to herself and comically projects her feelings onto everybody else. Wisely, Fuentes tempers Juanita’s eccentricities with kind feelings for her native city and friends like Esther, a Sephardic Jew in love with a married Moroccan man. Here again the script races along without developing the secondary characters, who seem present simply to illustrate the idea that Tangiers was once a paradise where cultures and religions lived respectfully together.
Tech work is serviceable but unexciting.