Meant to jog the viewer’s memory regarding political repression in Morocco under King Hassan II, who died in 1999, “Memory in Detention” is a ghosts-of-the-past drama too sensitive and allusive for most foreign viewers to grasp. Actor-helmer Jilali Ferhati (“The Reed Doll,” “The Beach of Lost Children”) makes few concessions to those not already familiar with the issue, leaving a puzzling void around the intricately plotted story of a young thief forced to search for the relatives of an old prisoner who may or may not be suffering from amnesia. Arab film fests will be the first takers.
The ticklish subject of political torture and imprisonment has been dealt with more directly in other Moroccan films like Hassan Benjelloun’s “The Black Room” and Saad Chraibi’s “Jahwara,” but Jilali’s script, laden with dramatic inflections, is more ambitious.
When young car thief Zoubeir (Mohamed Marouazi) is released from jail, the humane prison director asks him to find a relative to take care of the memory-challenged old embezzler Mokhtar (Ferhati), who has been in jail so long he no longer wants to leave.
Following addresses on old letters, Zoubeir and Mokhtar embark on a cross-country search for someone who remembers him. Meanwhile, a woman Mokhtar’s age (Fatema Loukili) returns from exile to try to find her former political friends, many of whom were arrested at the time she made her escape.
Like a detective novel run amuck, pic plants clues and counter-clues, suggesting alternative motivations and identities at every turn. Zoubeir becomes convinced Mokhtar isn’t a common criminal but a political prisoner who named names to the police, leading to the death of Zoubeir’s father. The plot’s shifting sands leave viewers with no sure ground to stand on or from which to judge the characters.
Though young thesp Marouazi offers a lively pivot for the proceedings, Ferhati’s dignity-cloaked Mokhtar is so silent and ambiguous he gathers little sympathy, and his fate, like the outcome of the increasingly complex mystery, becomes uninteresting.
Kamal Derkaoui’s eye-catching lensing is sensitive and expressive, giving the film a tony quality through its visual poetry of windmills and painted walls.