If political courage were a measure of artistic merit, Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch’s “Razzia,” a kaleidoscopic drama about intolerance and social tumult in Casablanca, would be a formidable achievement. As it stands, Ayouch’s decision to keep courting controversy after his last film, “Much Loved,” was banned from Morocco for its depiction of prostitution in Marrakech is laudable in a country where the censors hold sway. Yet the everything-is-connected framework, linking five stories across a 30-year span, plays like a multipronged pitchfork wielded against the establishment, with each character sharpened to a point. The message-first approach drains the film of spontaneity and depth, despite the rousing passion of its director. A prime spot in TIFF’s Platform competition will raise its profile, but “Razzia” may struggle to find a home, inside and outside Morocco.
With repeated references to “Casablanca,” Ayouch draws a contrast between the romantic and rebellious spirit of the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman classic and the modern city of Casablanca, which is falling short of those ideals. (At one point it’s noted bitterly that not a second of “Casablanca” was shot in Morocco.) But “Razzia” starts outside the city, 30 years earlier, with Abdallah (Amine Ennaji), an enlightened rural schoolteacher who bristles against Islamic government reforms that would change his curriculum and force his students to speak in Arabic, a language they don’t know. When he resists, Abdallah loses his job without notice.
From there, “Razzia” reveals how that single injustice ripples through the lives of generations to come, as religious dogma begins to take root. Cutting to 2015 Casablanca, Ayouch follows four more stories that have hidden links to this past oppression. Ayouch’s co-writer, Maryam Touzani, plays Salima, a rebellious modern woman who’s punished for her libertine ways, both at home, where she’s shunned by her misogynist boyfriend, and on the street, where a random passerby scolds her for her tight dress. (In response, she hikes it up further.) Then there’s the affable Joe (Arieh Worthalter), a well-to-do Jewish restaurateur who strikes up a relationship with a prostitute, only to watch her flee in disgust when she discovers his religion. The film’s roundelay also includes two young people at a confusing juncture in their lives: Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid), a would-be rock star who worships Freddie Mercury but cannot please his conservative father, and Ines (Dounia Binebine), a wealthy teenager who cannot find relief for her stress or a healthy outlet for her burgeoning sexuality.
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The interaction among all these characters is minimal, which means that the amount of time we get to know them is also limited, because the film has to keep juggling five balls in the air. Ayouch’s solution is a narrative shorthand that underlines the messages he’s trying to send, like noting Ines’ cultural quandary by having her pray toward Mecca while a racy music video plays on her computer monitor or introducing an abortion subplot as a crude affront to government restrictions. “Razzia,” which means “raid” in Arabic, touches on feminism, education, religious law, anti-Semitism and freedom of expression — a list of political topics so comprehensive that Ayouch could moonlight as an opinion editor or a debate coach.
As a filmmaker, Ayouch displays a formal elegance at times, as in a tracking shot where Hakim struts through a hostile neighborhood like John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” or the malevolent hordes of protesters that creep into the frame. Ayouch idealizes “Casablanca” as a vision of the city he wants, flush with romance and resistance, but he has a strong sense of Casablanca as it actually is, seized by the encroachment of repressive ideology. Yet “Razzia” is fatally crippled by a conceit that flattens the characters to serve an argument, like bullet points in a sweeping editorial about the current state of Morocco. It’s a style better suited to the opinion page.