Recent pics set in Morocco deal almost exclusively with trapped lives and natives trying to leave, so it’s both refreshing and instructive to see an insider tackling not the usual issues but the growing pains of Casablanca’s privileged youth. A first film with many of that species’ hallmarks but also containing pointed social commentary and a glowing central perf, helmer Laila Marrakchi’s “Marock” may at times feel old hat, though given the setting she’s crafted a nicely modulated work richer than a simple growing-up tale. Francophone art houses should see modest interest.
Opening immediately encapsulates the contrasts of Moroccan life in 1997: a devout man on his prayer rug is surrounded by expensive cars in a disco parking lot, where street urchins make catcalls watching wealthy teens out for the night. Fiery Rita (Morjana Alaoui), seventeen, has the hots for flashy studman Youri (Matthieu Boujenah). They’re both from the same social milieu but with one major difference: he’s Jewish.
Her rich parents aren’t the type to get too involved in their children’s lives, but her newly Islamized brother Mao (Assaad Bouab), just back from studies in Paris, is not at all pleased with his sister’s overtly Western airs and Jewish bf. Although Rita has no problem munching on a Big Mac during Ramadan and refuses to hollowly follow tradition, deep down she knows that short of conversion her relationship with Youri isn’t kosher.
Wrapped around this “West Side Story” set among Casablanca’s elite is a far more interesting story of social stratification and the separate but equal worlds of Muslims and Jews. Most of Rita’s friends treat “the lower orders” with an air of thinly disguised superiority, while for the hormone-heavy guys other peoples’ servants are an available piece of ass. Amongst themselves they chatter in French, but with those outside their circle they speak in Arabic.
It’s this cogent if predictable peek into this milieu that puts paid to easy comparisons with Whit Stillman’s more incestuous insider take on rich kids’ lives. Marrakchi does occasionally get tripped up by a freshman helmer’s need to overstate the obvious: lingering pans of Rita’s diet of CDs and magazines, not to mention the family villa, overplay the need to establish personalities through objects, and switching to slow-motion for the first time Rita and Youri lock gazes will probably cause Marrakchi herself to blush in a year or two.
Script too, worked out in consultation with friends who share her upbringing, could use some tightening up. But thesps, most of whom make their professional bows, perfectly slip into roles they know well from their personal lives. Alaoui, helmer’s cousin and a natural presence on screen, should have no problem pursuing a career in front of the camera.
Period chosen, 1997, reflects both Marrakchi’s own teen years (partly accounting for the terrific use of period pop music) and the tail-end of the old guard’s strongly-rooted belief in the permanence of their privileged lifestyle.