×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Unknown Saint’

A droll, entertaining, absurdist fable about spirituality and greed.

Director:
Alaa Eddine Aljem
With:
Younes Bouab, Salah Bensalah, Bouchaib Essamak, Mohamed Naimane, Anas El Baz, Hassan Ben Bdida, Abdelghani Kitab, Ahmed Yarziz. (Darija Arabic dialogue)

Running time: 100 MIN.

Official Site: https://www.semainedelacritique.com/fr/edition/2019/film/the-unknown-saint

Beautifully shot and ideally cast, debuting Moroccan writer-director Alaa Eddine Aljem’s “The Unknown Saint” is a droll, entertaining, absurdist fable about spirituality and greed that signals an important new talent. The events unfold near a derelict desert village, where, in a pre-title prologue, a thief buries a bag of loot on top of a hill, disguising the spot as a grave. Years later, when he returns to retrieve his booty, he is astonished and frustrated to find that a mausoleum honoring an “unknown saint” credited with performing healing miracles now covers the site. Moreover, a new village has sprung up nearby to service the pilgrims that the shrine attracts. Aljem manages to reap much fresh humor from this situation and a spritely cast of eccentric characters.

The story of the stymied thief (Younes Bouab) and his former accomplice, the sarcastically-styled Ahmed the Brain (the towering Salah Bensalah, particularly fine), plays out in parallel to, and overlaps with, that of the locals. There’s the mausoleum guard (Abdelghani Kitab), a widower who prefers his lively German shepherd watchdog (surely a strong, early competitor for the “Palme Dog”) to his own young son; the newly arrived and soon bored doctor (Anas El Baz) and his sly, paracetamol-dispensing assistant (Hassan Ben Bdida); the dextrous barber-cum-dentist (Ahmed Yarziz), who literally finds a new niche for his sideline in teeth crafting; and from the nearly empty neighboring village, failing farmer Brahim (Mohamed Naimane) and his dutiful adult son Hassan (Bouchaib Essamak), whose narrative line feels a bit anemic early on. It must be noted that the universe Aljem crafts is a strongly male one, with the speaking roles for women limited to the doctor’s elderly, time-wasting patients. And it’s a place where credulity and rumor take precedence over science and sensibility.

As the thief and Ahmed seek ways to enter the shrine, they are continually foiled by the guard or various ceremonies and pilgrimages. Meanwhile, it eventually becomes clear that there are others besides the thief who would like to destroy the mausoleum.

Aljem, whose 2015 short “Desert Fish” nabbed multiple festival awards, trained at ESAV Marrakech and INSAS in Brussels, earning prizes and various workshopping opportunities (via Cannes and the Sundance Institute, among others) over the course of its development. In addition to commenting on issues of faith and money, the multi-layered screenplay also addresses themes of modernity vs. tradition, not only with the new and old villages, but with the road builders and their dynamite, who work to link the area to the rest of the country.

Although the characters are minimally fleshed-out archetypes (the thief, the barber, the doctor, etc.) rather than fully developed characters with backstories and narrative arcs, the performances from a mix of pros and non-pros are stylized in such a way that they succeed in providing the film’s gently satirical, burlesque tone. Much of the humor comes from visual appearances and physical gestures, à la Aki Kaurismaki or Aljem’s compatriot Faouzi Bensaidi in “WWW: What A Wonderful World.”

While “The Unknown Saint,” is certainly beguiling festival fare, the chief criticism is that it is perhaps a tad too slowly paced to sustain its low-key action throughout. And theatrical buyers might prefer something with a little more narrative meat on its bones. Still, the tech package is impeccable, with standout contributions from DP Amine Berrada, who captures the dusky hues of this rocky, dusty place, and composer Amine Bouhafa, whose flavorful score is used only sparingly.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Unknown Saint'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week), May 15, 2019. Running time: 100 MIN. (Original title: “Le Miracle du Saint Inconnu’)

Production: (Morocco-France-Qatar) A Condor Distribution release (in France) of a Le Moindre Geste production, in co-production with Altamar Films, with the support of CCM, CNC-Institut Français, OIF, DFI, in association with the Match Factory, Schortcut Films, Chadwell Int'l Ltd., Condor Distribution. (Int’l sales: The Match Factory, Cologne.) Producers: Francesca Duca, Alexa Rivera.

Crew: Director, writer: Alaa Eddine Aljem. Camera (color), Amine Berrada. Editor: Lilian Corbeille. Music: Amine Bouhafa.

With: Younes Bouab, Salah Bensalah, Bouchaib Essamak, Mohamed Naimane, Anas El Baz, Hassan Ben Bdida, Abdelghani Kitab, Ahmed Yarziz. (Darija Arabic dialogue)

More Film

  • For web story

    Toronto: Sony Pictures Classics Buys 'The Burnt Orange Heresy' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Sony Pictures Classics has nabbed the rights to “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” Variety has learned. The indie label plans to release the film in 2020. The Italian-American thriller was directed by Giuseppe Capotondi and stars Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, and Donald Sutherland. Scott Smith adapted Charles Willeford’s novel of the same name, transporting [...]

  • Thomasin McKenzie and Essie Davis

    Thomasin McKenzie and Essie Davis to Star in 'Justice of Bunny King'

    Essie Davis, star of “The Babadook” and autumn festival hit “Babyteeth,” and “Jojo Rabbit” co-star Thomasin McKenzie will headline upcoming drama “The Justice of Bunny King.” The film, now shooting in New Zealand, is a triumph over adversity tale about women fighting their way back from the bottom of society. It is the debut feature [...]

  • Calm With Horses

    Nick Rowland Talks About Toronto Debut Film 'Calm With Horses'

    “Calm with Horses,” which made its world premiere in Toronto’s TIFF in the Discovery section, is the feature directorial debut of Nick Rowland (Amazon series “Ripper Street”), and stars Barry Keoghan (Marvel’s upcoming “The Eternals,” “Dunkirk”), Cosmo Jarvis (“Annihilation”), and Niamh Algar (BBC’s “The Virtues”). The script, which was adapted from Colin Barrett’s short story [...]

  • Colin Trevorrow Directs Jurassic World Short

    Colin Trevorrow Returns to Jurassic World in Short Film 'Battle at Big Rock'

    Dinosaurs are roaming the Earth again. In a new short from “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow, rogue beasts wreak havoc on a family camping trip. The eight-and-a-half minute film, titled “Battle at Big Rock,” takes place a year after the events of “Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom.” More Reviews Toronto Film Review: 'Atlantis' Venice Film Review: [...]

  • Bert Kreischer The Machine

    Legendary Lands Rights to Bert Kreischer’s Viral Story 'The Machine' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Legendary has optioned the rights to develop comedian Bert Kreischer’s story “The Machine” into a feature film following its viral success, sources tell Variety. The video has generated more than 85 million views on Facebook and YouTube since hitting the social media channels in December 2016 and Legendary moved aggressively to land the rights. Kreischer [...]

  • Margot Robbie poses at the launch

    Margot Robbie in Talks to Executive Produce, Star in Comedy 'Fools Day'

    Margot Robbie is in negotiations to executive produce and star as a fourth-grade teacher in New Line’s comedy “Fools Day.” New Line has acquired Cody Blue Snider’s short film of the same name to adapt into the feature project. Snider, who co-wrote and directed the short, will direct the full-length feature from a script he [...]

  • M Night Shyamalan'Glass' film premiere, Arrivals,

    M. Night Shyamalan Sets Two New Films at Universal

    M. Night Shyamalan will write and direct two new movies at Universal Pictures, the studio announced Monday. The currently untitled thrillers will be released in theaters on Feb. 26, 2021 and Feb. 17, 2023, respectively. “M. Night Shyamalan continues to create exciting, highly original stories that keep global audiences on the edge of their seats,” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content