Much of what was right with “Casanegra,” Nour-Eddine Lakhmari’s breakout hit, turns derivative in his hotly anticipated but disappointing follow-up, “Zero.” Channeling David Lynch as well as Martin Scorsese, the helmer delivers a paean to noir via a troubled alcoholic cop trying to regain his self-respect by breaking up an underage prostitution ring. Full of sordid characters and largely shot in the nighttime streets of Casablanca, the pic fails to make fresh the numerous tropes it borrows on so heavily, resulting in an imitative transplant lacking the kind of distinctiveness that could generate international play.While the Moroccan release is likely to bring in decent coin, it’s probable that the announced four-part, 208-minute miniseries version stands a better shot of regional expansion. As is, the pic feels as if Lakhmari hasn’t ripped pages out of a well-worn Scorsese handbook so much as carefully removed them from the binding and smoothed down any creases before scanning and merging them with other manuals. Zero is the nickname of Amine Bertale (Younes Bouab), a bottom-feeding cop whose moniker encapsulates the lack of respect he earns and gets from associates. The son of Abbas (Mohamed Majd), an embittered former auxiliary policeman stuck in a wheelchair, Zero is humiliated at home by his father and on the job by his malicious, corrupt superior, Commissioner Zerouali (Aziz Dadas). Not that Zero’s exactly clean: He shakes down johns who think they’re being arrested for picking up an underage hooker, in reality Zero’s more-than-legal g.f., Mimi (Zineb Samara). It’s when Aicha (Malika Hamaoui), a peasant woman from the provinces, comes to Zero asking him to find her missing 15-year-old daughter, Nadia (Ouidad Elma), that the flatfoot rediscovers something of a moral compass, thanks also to Dr. Kenza (Sonia Okacha), representing femme goodness in classic film-noir style. What Zero uncovers is an upscale brothel stocked with minors and run by a pair of restaurateurs (Raouya, Rafik Boubker), who are protected by Zerouali and other well-connected sleazeballs. The film means to take aim at Moroccan corruption by exposing the nefarious ways cops, judges and politicos are in the pockets of the underworld, but its exaggeratedly lurid style in the later scenes take on a phony surrealism that weakens any genuine critique. While Scorsese’s spirit rules the first half, Lynch’s controls the second, yet further derivations abound: Zero is styled like Serpico, and parallels can be made too easily with a host of titles ranging from “Hardcore” and “Chinatown” to “The Maltese Falcon” (not for nothing does Zero have a photo of Bogie on his wall). One can’t help wondering whether the three credited French script doctors tinkered too much with the final product. As with “Casanegra,” d.p. Luca Coassin conjures an urban landscape of shadowy, empty streets and fluorescent-lit interiors, though this time he also switches to garish saturated colors for the ridiculous whorehouse sequence. Richard Horowitz’s jazz score fits the noir tone.
A Timlif production. Produced by Redouan Bayed. Directed, written by Nour-Eddine Lakhmari.
Camera (color, widescreen), Luca Coassin; editor, Youssef Mernissi; music, Richard Horowitz; production designer, Badr Soud El Hassani; costume designer, Loujaine Berrioua, Khadija Dakhil; sound (Dolby Digital), Emmanuel Legall, Vincent Villa. Reviewed at Dubai Film Festival (competing), Dec. 13, 2012. Running time: 114 MIN.
Younes Bouab, Mohamed Majd, Sonia Okacha, Zineb Samara, Aziz Dadas, Rafik Boubker, Malika Hamaoui, Said Bey, Ouidad Elma, Raouya, Mohamed Ben Brahim.