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Death for Sale

There's no honor among thieves -- or in the police department, either -- in the moody neo-noir "Death for Sale," the uneven third feature from Moroccan helmer Faouzi Bensaidi ("A Thousand Months").

With: Fehd Benchemsi, Fouad Labiad, Mouchcine Malzi, Imane Mechrafi, Nezha Rahil, Faouzi Bensaidi. (Arabic dialogue)

There’s no honor among thieves — or in the police department, either — in the moody neo-noir “Death for Sale,” the uneven third feature from Moroccan helmer Faouzi Bensaidi (“A Thousand Months”). The episodic, leisurely paced tale uneasily combines realistic observations about the changing social and political climate of Tetouan, a picturesque port city surrounded by mountains, with the visually playful genre experiments of the director’s second feature, “WWW: What a Wonderful World.” Downbeat subject matter and oddly conflicting tone signal that further fest play is the mostly likely form of distribution outside the pic’s co-producing countries.

The tale centers on petty thief Malik (Fehd Benchemsi), 26, who pals around with aggressive, drug-dealing ex-con Allal (Fouad Labiad), 30, and fleet-footed pickpocket Soufiane (Mouchcine Malzi), 18. Malik’s mad passion for high-priced prostitute Dounia (Imane Mechrafi), rendered in sensual, ultra-romantic, narrative-stopping images, wreaks havoc on his life and other relationships.

With a police crackdown under way in town, the nightclub where Dounia works is raided, and she gets thrown in the slammer. Malik decides to feed insider information to the corrupt Inspector Debbouz (helmer Bensaidi, once again a deadpan villain) to facilitate the release of his beloved, and starts by planting drugs in the bakery belonging to his uncle/stepfather, whom he blames for the suicide of his beloved sister (Nezha Rahil, the key thesp in Bensaidi’s two previous films).

As newly flush informant Malik and Dounia bed down in a seedy hotel on the police department’s dime, Allal decides to cool his heels outside town, and Soufiane falls in with a group of fundamentalists, but soon the lure of one last heist brings the three former friends together again.

The grippingly realistic digressions into Malik’s family life and the fundamentalist training camp in the hills make for far more compelling viewing than the stylized noir theatrics of the crime-caper story strand. While Bensaidi’s tinkering with genre conventions worked well as part of the self-conscious artifice of “WWW,” it proves disruptive here.

Raw thesping from the four young newcomers playing the marginalized outsiders lacks the focused energy and charisma that would enable them to nail their parts or make viewers care about their characters. By contrast, the alluring, technically rigorous craft package has Euro polish.

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Death for Sale

Belgium-France-Morocco-Germany-United Arab Emirates

Production: An Entre Chien et Loup, Agora Film, Liaison Cinematographique production with the support of the Center Cinematographique Marocain, Sanad -- Abu Dhabi Film Festival, World Cinema Fund, Visions Sud Est, L'Atelier Cannes, Arte, the Belgian Government Tax Shelter, Mormal Philippe, Lorto. (International sales: Urban Distribution, Montreuil, France.) Produced by Sebastian Delloye, Souad Lamriki, Benedicte Bellocq. Directed, written by Faouzi Bensaidi.

Crew: Camera (color), Marc-Andre Batigne; editor, Danielle Anezin; music, Richard Horowitz; production designer, Itaf Benjelloun; costume designer, Nezha Rahil; sound (Dolby Digital), Patrice Mendez, Gert Janssen, Luc Thomas. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 15, 2011. (Also in Abu Dhabi Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 117 MIN.

With: With: Fehd Benchemsi, Fouad Labiad, Mouchcine Malzi, Imane Mechrafi, Nezha Rahil, Faouzi Bensaidi. (Arabic dialogue)

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