A little boy growing up in a village in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains stands at the uncertain center of shifting social and political ground in “A Thousand Months,” a feature debut of unusual sophistication and emotional resonance. Young Moroccan stage helmer Faouzi Bensaidi, who co-scripted Andre Techine’s Tangiers-set “Loin,” brings a wisp of humor to a tale pleasingly grounded in authentic feelings, while at the same time technically rigorous. The leisurely pace of the storytelling will put many viewers off. More patient viewers, however, will find the narrative rhythm, which at first seems to languish in one eventless scene after another, gradually fuses with careful camera compositions in a rich textured work. This is primarily a festival item that will find appreciation in select arthouse outings.
The story is set in 1981 during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, whose sacred last night is said to be more important than “a thousand months.” While religion remains in the background, it influences all the characters’ lives. Young Mehdi (Fouad Labied) lives with his dignified, impoverished grandfather (Mohammed Majd) and young mother Amina (Nezha Rahil); his father, a teacher, has been thrown into prison for inciting a strike and never appears in the film.
Lying to Mehdi, they tell him his father is in France. The prison lies in a city whose lights are close enough to be seen from the village; but when Amina’s visiting rights are suspended, her loneliness grows into depression and a helpless urge for a different life. Grandfather, honored as a former resistance fighter and the family’s moral center, has to work as a day laborer and sell his furniture to keep them going.
Mehdi, a normal hell-raising boy, remains a bit distant; unusually, Bensaidi chooses not to tell the tale through his eyes or give him any privileged closeups. Half the film passes before it’s explained why he goes around carrying a wooden chair on his head. It is the only thing of value in the poor village schoolroom, and the teacher has assigned him the task of taking it home every night to protect it. Its symbolic value grows as the film goes on, and when it is “stolen” (clearly sold by the grandfather to buy Mehdi new clothes), its loss sets in motion a series of events that involve the whole village and lead to an unexpectedly dramatic finale.
Moving at a slow clip, the film has plenty of time to introduce a whole range of more or less eccentric characters who bring elements of humor and surprise. There is a young caid (mayor) struggling to control his lustful urges, a local beauty who drives her suitors wild, a mad farmer said to be cursed for killing his wife. The beautiful Malika, the former caid’s liberated, spoiled daughter, takes part in protest marches and dies in a car crash. People say God has punished her for wearing makeup during Ramadan.
The episodic structure, though studded with dramatic events, itself lacks drama, and first half of film, until the chair story kicks in, can be tough going. The excessively spare dialogue leaves it up to the viewer to figure out who people are and what is going on. What comes across is a strong sense of atmosphere: dusty roads that cut through the mountains, water-bearers staggering through the desert, a crowded bar where all the men go to watch television soaps.
Majd and Rahil, the adult thesps, turn in delicate, reserved perfs around the rambunctious, often humorous Labied as Mehdi and secondary actors. Making a notable contribution are lenser Antoine Heberle’s widescreen images, which plant the characters in the landscape, often through off-center composition and other formal devices.