A fact-based kernel is worked into a pleasant if light fiction feature in Daoud Aoulad-Syad’s “The Mosque.” The Moroccan village where the helmer shot his superior “Waiting for Pasolini” apparently refused to tear down the film-set mosque erected for the shoot; when the landowner tried to retrieve his property, he was told it was a site of worship. Aoulad-Syad uses this true story to gently probe the rights of an individual within a community and reveal the way unscrupulous agents manipulate religion, all told via a simplified narrative. Fests looking for Maghreb fare may call.
While familiarity with “Waiting for Pasolini” adds an extra dimension to the viewing experience, it’s hardly a requirement. Farmer Moha (Abdelhadi Touhrach) needs his land back so he can support his family, but the villagers now treat the ersatz mosque as if it were the real thing. Even the guy who played the local imam in the film (Mustapha Tahtah) sets himself up as the real imam of the phony mosque, maintaining a smarmy holy aura while gladly jumping into the pockets of corrupt politician Anwar (Zakaria Atifi), who promises him a nice position in Marrakech if he swings voters his way.
The increasingly desperate Moha seeks advice from various imams, who all tell him he should feel blessed that a mosque has been built on his land. Only the village’s former imam, now living in self-exile next to the cemetery, truly understands the Koran, lashing out at Moha for going against Islam by confiscating land, and pointing out that the minaret doesn’t even face Mecca. As tour groups (an incongruous French-speaking bunch from China) visit the locale, it looks less and less likely that Moha will find justice.
Aoulad-Syad seems heavily influenced by sub-Saharan cinema here, sharing with certain colleagues to the south an almost folkloric sense of storytelling that’s clear-cut and inherently undynamic. Dialogue has unnaturally clean spaces between each sentence, and occasionally characters speak positioned almost side by side, avoiding the need for editing back and forth and increasing the sense of a simply told and presented parable. While the premise is more clever than its execution, “The Mosque” succeeds in gently making pointed criticisms of the way religion — any religion — can be twisted to keep the weakest members of a community in their place.
Landscape shots have a nicely elemental quality, composed of bold expanses of sand and sky with picturesque buildings or palms breaking the horizon. Far more than in “Waiting for Pasolini,” the helmer and his regular d.p., Thierry Lebigre, make the village of Zagora, near the Algerian border, an essential persona, using basic compositions that convey the environment’s integral place in forming local character.