The rebellious son of a Koranic lawyer defies his father’s expectations and his community’s repressive traditional mores in the sensual, Casablanca-set drama “Love in the Medina,” from helmer/co-scripter Abdelhai Laraki. Freely adapted from the literary prizewinner “Choice Cuts” by Mohamed Nedali, this handsomely crafted tale of a butcher and his taboo passions is Morocco’s 2011 box office champ, despite its 16-plus rating. With the combo of food and sex a proven recipe for foreign-language arthouse success, niche distribs will want to sample.
Unfolding across two timeframes, the pic opens in 2010 with the death of the lawyer (Abdou El Mesnaoui), father of Thami (Moroccan heartthrob Omar Lotfi), repping the end of an old moral and social order. The story then flashes back 12 years to the repressive regime of King Hassan II to tell the story of how Thami came to be persona non grata in his family’s home and in the medina (the old quarter of the city).
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Even as a lad, Thami fled from his cold, hectoring father, preferring the warmth of his mother’s kitchen and the voluptuous feel of raw meat. Although it offends his father’s dignity, Thami is destined to become a butcher, and a mightily successful one.
Working out of his own stall, lustful Thami takes advantage of his increased independence from his family to seduce his distaff customers. In this way, he meets his great love, Zineb (Ouidad Elma), the young second wife of an elderly, impotent army corporal.
Laraki brings to life the closed, colorful atmosphere of the medina, a small world where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and marriage rarely involves love. There, Thami’s friend Omar (Mehdi Foulane), the old gossip Rehma (Zahira Sadik) and the kindly Turkish-bath attendant-cum-prostitute Halima (Amal Ayouch) aid and abet his renegade behavior while the corrupt Mokkadem (Driss Rokhe) lurks and lasciviously tries for his own pound of flesh.
The hypocrisy of the old order (and old people) contrasts sharply with the ardor of youth. At a movie theater, the feared security police stop Thami and a bare-armed date. Rather than making them disappear or breaking their teeth, as the Makhzen were known to do, they happily extract a bribe when they learn Thami is a rich man.
While necessarily condensing events from the novel, Laraki and co-scripter Violaine Bellet also draw directly from the text in some of Thami’s voiceover ruminations. Although never explicit, the action emphasizes the carnal, from the beginning with the ritual bathing of Thami’s father’s body to Thami’s ecstatic couplings with Zineb; a casual affair with a French tourist (Julie Nicolet) plays like the eating scene in “Tom Jones” crossed with the athletics of “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”
Well-cast thesps look their parts, with supporting character turns often styled toward comic soap-opera effect. The sultry production design, full of gorgeous tile work and quivering flesh (female and food), mirrors the hero’s hedonism, while traditional North African instruments propel the resonant score from Richard Horowitz.