A heavy-metal band is arrested for “shaking the foundations of Islam” in “The Satanic Angels,” an accomplished, at times gripping critique of contempo Morocco that refreshingly adds another dimension to the usual cinematic treatments of the country. Basing his script on a real case, sophomore helmer Ahmed Boulane fearlessly places blame at nearly all levels of society, using the sheer absurdity of the charges to highlight the increasing grip of fundamentalism on an ostensibly secular state. Despite occasional sound problems, pic — a major hit at home — is eminently exportable.
Casablanca, 2003: As in every city the world over, heavy metal and goth culture have their share of devotees, expressed not just through music but through the uniform of long hair, black T-shirts and multiple piercings. Band member Ali (Fahd Benchemsi) gets help from friends cleaning up the rehearsal space so they can throw a welcoming party for his American g.f., Ariane (Sarah Ogden).
Without warning, the authorities raid the den, rounding up 14 members after making sure the American is escorted out of Morocco. Who ordered the arrests is unclear, but conservative elements are quick to spread lurid rumors, full of accusations of satanic rituals.
Most of these kids come from solidly middle-class homes, such as Momo (Youssef Chakiri), whose cosmopolitan parents (Younes Megri, Nadia Niazi) recruit crusading journalist Hakim (Mansour Badri) when their son is arrested at home, his Metallica posters confiscated as evidence.
Short but powerful trial scene reps the strong heart of the picture, as the youths are defended by lawyers (Elhachmi Benamar, Amal Ayouch) who remind the judge that neither musical tastes nor black T-shirts are legally proscribed. The case becomes a cause celebre, attracting partisans from all levels of society.
Pic opens and closes with concert footage of the loud but mediocre band, composed of harmless kids having fun with a style that has as much hidden meaning as most other antiestablishment fashions trying too hard to get noticed. Boulane shows how linking devil worship to clothing choice — remember the controversy over Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson? — can be turned into a dangerously insidious form of control. He also metes out harsh judgment on the media, police and judiciary for allowing Morocco to be hijacked by Islamists intent on transforming a semi-open society.
Despite a final victory of sorts, pic is a cry of frustration, as Momo’s father, jailed as a youth for democratic activities, declares that nothing has changed in the country. Ending title about a fundamentalist suicide bomber drives home the increasingly divisive problems Morocco and the whole region are facing.
Helmer scrupulously avoids saying whether the king (an untouchable figure) ultimately intervened in the case, but hints at tensions between the Islamist juggernaut and the more liberal monarch.
Lensing is smooth, and Boulane does well to refrain from flourishes in the courtroom scene, thereby subtly building the thrust of the lawyers’ arguments. An early, gratuitous flashback serves no purpose, while a teasing hint of violence at the start confuses without increasing tension. Sound balance is a problem, especially when music drowns out dialogue.