A neighborhood on the outskirts of Tetuan in northern Morocco -- the hometown of some of the terrorists responsible for the 2004 Madrid bombings -- provides the setting for and the meaning of the raw, compelling "Ordinary Boys."

A neighborhood on the outskirts of Tetuan in northern Morocco — the hometown of some of the terrorists responsible for the 2004 Madrid bombings — provides the setting for and the meaning of the raw, compelling “Ordinary Boys.” The boys (and girl) of the title have been elevated by circumstance to the status of extraordinary, and the pic — without ever beating the drum — reps an attempt restore their normality by displaying the social conditions under which their minds were shaped. Political sidebars are the film’s likeliest destination.

Much of the pic’s power derives from a script that has its characters in the right place before the first scene, so that merely watching their lives unfold will tell us all we need to know.

Rabia (Rabia Bouchfira) has been living alone for four months since her boyfriend emigrated in search of work: She is now striving to assert her independence by not wearing her headscarf in this traditional, sexist community. She’s also hoping to open her own dressmaking business.

Petty criminal Youseff (Youseff Belefki) limps around on crutches, having been knifed in the leg: His brother has disappeared, and Youssef is trying to live a straight life by running a street-market stand. Jobless El-Khader (El-Khader Aoulasse) lives with his intensely religious mother, and for her: He wears T-shirts with the word “California” on them and muses half-heartedly on the possibility of escape.

Pic makes its point fleetingly: In one beautifully done early conversation, we hear how a neighbor’s husband was one of the bombers killed in Madrid, how he has had no funeral, and how his family is ashamed of him. From then on, mainland Europe is referenced mainly as a place of escape from the protags’ limited lives.

Rabia hears that seven people are necessary to set up her business, but finding seven people prepared to ignore community standards and work for her is impossible. All El-Khader’s friends have gone abroad, and he is told that it’s his only chance. Youssef watches missing persons TV shows in the hope his brother will show up.

Visually, the pic’s hyperactive, hand-held lensing brings it extremely close to docu terrain, with just the occasional stylized shot — a reflection in sunglasses, a stunning nightscape, a beautiful image of houses piled like sugar cubes up hills. Otherwise, it’s down where National Geographic never goes, in the chaotic streets of the outskirts, with Pedro Ballesteros’ lensing carefully excising any image that could be construed as exotic.

Music is local fare, sometimes jazz-inflected, and makes a sparing if key contribution to mood.

Ordinary Boys

Spain

Production

An Alea Docs & Films production in association with TVE, TV3. (International sales: Alea, Barcelona.) Produced by Pablo Uson. Directed by Daniel Hernandez. Screenplay, Hernandez, Gabi Martinez.

Crew

Camera (color), Pedro Ballesteros; editor, Jorge Mota; music, Alberto G. Demestres; sound (Dolby Digital), Gael Wermelinger. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Zabaltegi New Directors), Sept. 23, 2008. Arabic dialogue. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Rabia Bouchfira, El-Khader Aoulasse, Youseff Belefki, Mohammed Saadoun.
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