Shortly before Marlon Brando’s 2004 demise, he met with Tunisian helmer Ridha Behi, purportedly expressing enthusiasm about collaborating on a feature together. Whatever shape that project might have taken had it been realized, Behi’s “Always Brando” winds up a curious animal: Part fan worship, part personal reminiscence, it mostly using this brief real-life interaction as the springboard for a crude, antiquated morality tale about the corrupting nature of showbiz. Exposure outside the Arab world will be slight, with the prominence an old-school predatory-homosexual character likely to turn off many programmers.
Seen onscreen at times and heard discussing his brief, odd interactions with Brando (albeit not in nearly enough detail), Behi says they’d planned making a film about “two Brandos”: one to be played by the star himself, the other by Anis Raache as an actor attempting to emulate his idol’s career path in the modern Arab world.
Current pic’s drastically reworked screenplay maintains the latter element: Raache (whose supposedly remarkable resemblance to Brando is just fair) plays Anis, an honorable small-town man whose head is turned when Western filmmakers, shooting a cheesy commercial film about mythic Atlantis, improbably decide to hire him as lead.
At first, Anis isn’t at all sure he wants to be an actor, and he’s put off by the crew’s exploitation of cheap local labor; fiancee Zina (Souhir Amara) thinks the whole thing is a bad idea. But Anis is seduced by the bogus promises of Hollywood stardom dangled by imported actor James (Christian Erickson), and soon he’s caving to the lecherous old actor’s casting-couch entreaties, then losing himself in additional newfound vices of luxury, sloth and substance abuse.
This road-to-ruin tale might well have been penned 80 years ago, if it were a Hollywood film; of course, attitudes toward licentious behavior and Western influence remain very much unchanged in much of today’s Muslim world, including Arabic cinema. Veteran helmer Behi (“The Swallows Do Not Die,” “The Magic Box”) doesn’t even attempt to reconcile his high-minded message with the inconvenient fact that Brando himself was no paragon of virtue, pretty much ignoring that ethical quandary. The film has time for digressions into broad comedy and clips from stereotypical Arab representations in film (notably a notorious “Raiders of the Lost Ark” scene), but just what all this really has to do with Brando grows ever fuzzier, and the cautionary narrative is as inert as it is clumsily melodramatic.
Perfs are highly variable, as is the modest assembly.