“In Casablanca Angels Don’t Fly” marks an assured feature debut by Moroccan producer-turned-helmer Mohamed Asli. Given a welcome lift from comic subplots that take the edge off its tragic trajectory, pic tracks three men from the sticks working at a bustling Casablanca cafe who send their earnings home but still yearn for the finer things in life, like stylish shoes. With critical support, “Casablanca” could get box office blessing as a niche release for upmarket distribs.
The only phone in a snowy Berber mountain village is a cellular one high on a hilltop that heavily pregnant Aicha (Leila El Ahyani) would have to climb to talk to her husband Said in Casablanca. Aicha, who is illiterate, doesn’t make it up the hill, but writes to Said through the local school teacher, predicting she will never come to Casablanca, the city which has “devoured” her husband.
Meanwhile, in Casablanca, where most of the action is set, Said (Rachid El Hazmir) keenly misses her. He only makes a pittance working at a cafe for a wily boss (Abderrazak el Badaoui) who punctuates the end of every conversation with staffers by muttering “riff raff” under his breath — just one instance of the film’s subtle use of repetition and running gags.
Also working as a tray jockey for the Man is Ismail (Abdessamed Miftah El Kheir), who races around the neighborhood every day delivering glasses of tea to the locals. With a slo-mo wallop he falls in love: the object of his ardor is a pair of leather Chelsea boots in a shop window that cost 1,200 dirham (about $130), a price way beyond his means. In his fantasies, owning the shoes turns him into the proprietor of splendid house, with a beautiful wife and even brings the power of flight.
Ottman (Abdelaziz Essghyr), another young man from Said’s village, bids farewell to his prized Arab stallion to make the long journey to the city and starts slinging hash in the cafe. His mother sends messages through their bus driver that the local landowner wants them to sell his horse to repay debts, but he refuses, proud that they’re the only family in the village that hasn’t sold its horse to the local butcher. Beautifully filmed flashback depicts Ottman as a 12-year-old making a ceremonial charge with Berber riders in full finery for a wedding.
By the third act, each character gets what he wants but with a cruel twist of fate.
Asli, who has worked as a co-producer on several Italian films and executive produced Gabriele Salvatores’ “Marrakesh Express” (1989), demonstrates a considerable skill and imagination, fashioning a tight script in collaboration with Siham Douguena. Small but artful touches, such as a speeded-up tour of the city shot from the top of a bus, snappy montage sequences and superimpositions give the film a whimsical quality, sweetening the last act’s bitter pill.
He also coaxes strong perfs from the mostly non-professional cast, with Miftah El Kheir proving a particular standout as the footwear-obsessive. His delicate mince through a rubble-strewn vacant lot, straining to avoid damaging his new boots, has a Tatiesque grace.
Tech credits are aces, particularly Roberto Meddi’s nuanced lensing, off-kilter for the city scenes and more classical in the village. Stephan Micus’ score, mixed together with bouncy Moroccan pop tunes, rings true throughout.