Seductively riffing on Bizet's "Carmen," "The Rif Lover" is a bold, visually ravishing drama about l'amour fou and the taboo that patriarchal culture places on women's bodies and desires.

Seductively riffing on Bizet’s “Carmen,” “The Rif Lover” is a bold, visually ravishing drama about l’amour fou and the taboo that patriarchal culture places on women’s bodies and desires. Moroccan helmer-writer Narjiss Nejjar (“Cry No More”) once again fashions a strong feminist statement that will be perceived by some as over-the-top. But the beauty and energy of the filmmaking — and the female thesps — go a long way toward compensating for narrative wobbles and melodramatic excesses. Further fest exposure is a given, while nudity and fraught sexual situations will be more acceptable to Euro outlets than to Moroccan ones.

Inspired by a tragic incident that befell a member of Nejjar’s extended family, the pic is essentially a cri de coeur that powerfully indicts a culture that muzzles female desire by labeling it impure, and equates a woman’s virginity with honor.

Impetuous, flirtatious 20-year-old Aya (Nadia Kounda) lives in a small seaside village in the picturesque Rif Cordillera with her mother (Nadia Niazi) and two brothers, Ahed (Fehd Benchemsi) and Hafid (Omar Lotfi). While her never-seen father labors as a fisherman in Spain, her brothers opt for easier albeit less honest work in the employ of a hashish trafficker, “the Baron” (Mourade Zeguendi, a smoldering presence).

Aya and best friend Raida (Ouidad Elma) spend their days romping through the burg’s maze-like streets in skimpy attire, sunning themselves on the beach and lounging on the roof of their connecting homes while longing for romance to sweep them off their feet. Aya fetishizes the Carlos Saura film “Carmen” and craves the heroine’s sexual power and sensual ease. When Aya’s brother Ahed secretly pimps her to the Baron, hoping to obtain his own cannabis field in return, he sets in motion a dangerous game in which Aya becomes a pawn.

Raising the question of whether a young woman schooled on naive notions of romance can control her own destiny, Nejjar allows her tragic heroine to narrate her own tale from a sadder but wiser perspective. A striking, color-desaturated opening sequence finds Aya directly addressing the camera, noting, “I gave in to a love song.”

Beneath the dazzling beauty of the section unfolding in the Rif, enclosed spaces hint at females’ lack of freedom while blood-red colors metaphorically rep the stain left by a bride’s broken hymen. The fluid camerawork makes all this much less heavy-handed than it sounds. However, things do bog down during an extended — and overheated — episode set in a women’s prison that could match any Roger Corman babes-in-the-big-house genre production.

While some of the pic’s dialogue comes off as overripe, Aya’s mother gets some great lines. Tech credits are stellar, with lenser Maxime Alexandre’s gorgeous widescreen compositions, Tal Haddad’s shimmering score and Julien Foure and Jacques Comets’ evocative jump-cut editing particularly worthy of mention.

The Rif Lover

Morocco-Belgium-France

Production

A Jbila Mediterranee Prods., CCM, Tarantula, 2M Soread, SNRI, Urban Factory, Mollywood production. (International sales: Urban Distribution Intl., Montreuil, France.) Produced by Narjiss Nejjar, Lamia Chraibi, Joseph Rouschop, Valerie Bournonville, Frederic Corvez, Clement Duboin. Directed, written by Narjiss Nejjar.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm, widescreen), Maxime Alexandre; editors, Julien Foure, Jacques Comets; music, Tal Haddad; art directors; Laurie Colson, Aurore Benoit; costume designer, Nezha Bakil; sound (Dolby Digital), Benjamin Falsimagne. Taoufik Mikraz, Patrice Mendez. Reviewed at Dubai Film Festival (competing), Dec. 8, 2011. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Nadia Kounda, Mourade Zeguendi, Ouidad Elma, Nadia Niazi, Fehd Benchemsi, Omar Lotfi, Siham Assif, Raouia, Narjiss Nejjar. (Arabic, French dialogue)
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