Yet another new voice is emerging from Moroccan cinema, and it’s fresh and energetic enough to be heard on multinational stages. Nour-Eddine Lakhmari’s sophomore feature, “Casanegra,” is a cross between classic film noir and “Mean Streets,” a dark tale of two small-time hustlers with big dreams looking to escape their dead-end lives in Casablanca. Though Lakhmari occasionally overpitches his scenes, he’s crafted memorable portraits of not-so-quiet desperation, helped considerably by Italo d.p. Luca Coassin’s tonally muted but intense visuals. Already a local smash, the pic could see modest Euro arthouse success, spurred by wins at Dubai and Taormina.
A terrific credits sequence, all neon signs in 1940s typeface, prepares the way for a style and story indebted as much to Anthony Mann as to Martin Scorsese. Karim (Anas Elbaz) and Adil (Omar Lotfi) are just past 20, looking to earn a fast buck through shady deals. For Karim, perpetually dressed in a black suit and tie, the dough is his ticket out of anonymity and into respect. Adil has a more pressing need for escape, thanks to a psychotic stepfather (Driss Roukhe).
After an especially violent beating, Adil becomes more determined than ever to get an illegal visa to join his uncle in Malmo, Sweden. He turns to Zrirek (Mohamed Benbrahim), a brutal shake-down artist with a hair-trigger temper — he’s part Fagin, part Bill Sikes via David Lynch. Karim wants nothing to do with the guy, but a brief stint as a nameless cog in a fish-cleaning factory (memorably lensed) convinces him that one job for Zrirek would be worth the risk.
Hesitation comes in the form of a slightly older beauty, Nabila (Ghita Tazi), a classy antique dealer. For Karim, she represents a gentler side of the city, one of chic watering holes, European trappings and soft femininity. Their first meeting is wonderfully played, providing a palpable sense of relief from the darker elements — a nightmarish assortment of whores, addicts and freaks who inhabit the nighttime streets.
“Casanegra” reps a considerable advance from Lakhmari’s promising but disjointed debut, the Norwegian-Moroccan co-production “The Gaze.” He’s tightened his scripting skills, allowing the story to develop naturally while adeptly building tension. One slip-up, however, is glaring: A scene of Adil’s step-father on the rampage is so over-the-top that it transcends the stereotype, but Lakhmari undercuts the sequence when he tries to recapture its intensity in a throw-away setpiece between Adil and a couple of nut-job fences.
Despite such a blunder, “Casanegra” captures Moroccan dissatisfaction in such a hip way that it’s no surprise some snatches of dialogue have become the nation’s latest street lingo. Part of the appeal is attributable to the two leads, both non-professionals who convey a nervous vulnerability beneath their tough-guy shells. These are career-making perfs for Elbaz and Lotfi, who could become stars if handled properly.
Shooting on location and mostly at night, Coassin and Lakhmari capture not merely the city but its tarnished yet still attractive soul in true film-noir fashion. Colors have been drained so that the visuals appear as close to black-and-white as possible; about the only warmth comes from Nabila’s lipstick. Sarah Mouta’s editing is sharp and considered, with Richard Horowitz’s jazzy score forming the ideal accompaniment.