Impressive direction doesn't entirely compensate for script weaknesses in Leila Kilani's visually accomplished debut.

Impressive direction doesn’t entirely compensate for script weaknesses in Leila Kilani’s visually accomplished debut “On the Plank.” Set in Tangier among a group of four young women who turn to petty theft, the pic boldly explores the hierarchy of factory workers along with the schizophrenic nature of the city, strikingly captured via Eric Devin’s assured lensing. Kilani’s script, however, sags midway and doesn’t deliver on its initial promise, though the former docu helmer (“Our Forbidden Places”) stakes a good claim as a director to watch. Fests will appreciate her audacity, especially now that spotlights are turning to Arab cinema.

International fest play is assured thanks to the number and profile of production grants awarded, including San Sebastian’s Cinema in Motion, the Berlinale’s Co-Production Market, and Abu Dhabi’s Sanad. Indie arthouse distrib Epicentre will be releasing in France, but wider exposure in cinemas is unlikely.

Peeling shrimp is one of the lowest rungs on the work ladder, due to lousy pay and a pungent smell that’s almost impossible to wash off. Badia (Soufia Issami) and her friend Imane (Mouna Bahmad) are 20-year-olds from Casablanca working in a shrimp-processing factory in Tangier; they have no ties to the city and little chance of enjoying its distractions. Imane is fairly placid, while Badia is obsessive, speaking in rapid spurts and frenetically scrubbing her body to rid herself of the lingering odor.

More than anything, Badia wants to work in the textile plants of the Free Zone, a tightly controlled enclave just beyond Tangier where business regulations are in line with European practices. The employees there are the privileged few among the working class, boastful of their status and dismissive of those beneath them. Badia and Imane meet textile workers Nawal (Nouzha Akel) and Asma (Sara Betioui), joining forces in small robberies of goods they fence for the extra dough and the thrill that comes from turning outlaw.

This is the jumping-off board of the pic’s title, a metaphorical dive into a world where opportunities aren’t handed out but taken. While initially amused by Badia’s desperate fearlessness, Nawal and Asma aren’t willing to make the same all-or-nothing plunge: They have families in Tangier, along with the privileges that come from working in the Free Zone.

The script begins to feel repetitive around midpoint, and the initial drive no longer keeps pace with the visual energy. Even more than the story of these four women, the film is a tale of two cities, or rather, multiple cities, since Tangier is shown as a fractured locale whose social divisions are subtly underscored; the sterile lines and globalized modernity of the Free Zone are in marked contrast to Tangier’s grittiness.

Kilani’s debuting actresses are an impressive foursome, with special mention going to the intense Issami and the bewitching Akel. Their strengths stand up to the striking lensing, bristling with a nervous energy that favors shallow focus and forceful closeups. Nighttime shooting reveals an unsettling world whose sense of danger adds greatly to the pic’s feeling of anxiety.

On the Plank

France-Morocco-Germany

Production

An Epicentre Films (in France) release of an Aurora Films, Socco Chico Films, DKB Prods., INA, Vandertastic production. (International sales: Fortissimo, Amsterdam.) Produced by Charlotte Vincent, Leila Kilani. Co-producers, Emmanuel Barrault, Gerald Collas, Hanneke Van der Tas. Directed, written by Leila Kilani.

Crew

Camera (color), Eric Devin; editor, Tina Baz; music, Wilfried Blanchard (Wilkimix); production designers, Yann Dury, Fatima Alaoui Ben Hassan; costume designer, Ayda Diouri; sound (Dolby SRD), Philippe Lecoeur, Laurent Malan. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight), May 19, 2011. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Soufia Issami, Mouna Bahmad, Nouzha Akel, Sara Betioui. (Moroccan Arabic dialogue)

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