×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cannes 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.

Cannes 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

  • promenade Cannes Croisette Cannes Placeholder

    Cannes Market Claims Record Visitor Numbers

    The Cannes Market, the Cannes Film Festival’s commercial wing, says that its 2019 edition welcomed a record number of participants. It reported 12,527 attendees. The largest group by nationality was from the U.S. with 2,264 participants, followed by France with 1,943 participants, and the U.K. 1,145. Comparable figures for 2018 were not available. More Reviews [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'Alien' at 40: Ridley Scott Explains Why 'You Don't Show the Monster Too Many Times'

    It’s difficult to imagine Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror classic “Alien” without the clear-minded, strong presence of Tom Skerritt as Dallas, the captain of the ill-fated Nostromo. But originally, the actor turned down “Alien,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary on May 25, though he thought Dan O’Bannon’s script read well. “There was nobody involved at the time [...]

  • The Poison Rose

    Film Review: 'The Poison Rose'

    It is 1978 in the City of Angels and the hard-drinking washed-up sleuth Carson Phillips is having another boozy day through its atmospheric streets. There is a hint of innate coolness and self-deprecation in his elongated voiceover intro — you might even briefly mistake Carson, played by a one-note John Travolta, for a Philip Marlowe [...]

  • 'Chambre 212' Review: A Comedy More

    Cannes Film Review: 'Chambre 212'

    Most of us, in our romantic lives, meditate here and there on the other roads we might have traveled, and movies are uniquely equipped to channel those alternate-universe-of-love possibilities. That’s the idea at the (broken) heart of “Casablanca.” And the fantasy of getting to see the turns your life didn’t take play out right in [...]

  • Zach Galifianakis Jerry Seinfeld Netflix

    Film News Roundup: Zach Galifianakis' 'Between Two Ferns: The Movie' Coming to Netflix

    In today’s film news roundup, “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” is unveiled, “Friedkin Uncut” gets a fall release and Sony Classics buys “The Traitor” at Cannes. MOVIE RELEASES More Reviews Cannes Film Review: 'Chambre 212' Film Review: 'The Poison Rose' Netflix has set a Sept. 20 release date for Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns: The [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content