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Saturday, October 16, 2004


in casablanca

another small joy of a film shown as part of the CIFF was "in casablanca, the angels don't fly", the directorial debut of moroccan mohamed asli. as a film, it might have been more; as a story, i was rapt.

(i'm fairly certain no one else is going to see this -- lol -- but i'll talk openly about the film hereafter, so don't read more if you don't want spoilers.)

the plot centers on the people of a berber village in the atlas mountains of morocco, but the underlying theme is a familiar and potent one in arab film -- a society in the throes of change. the protagonist, a berber man named said, has left his pregnant wife, aicha, and son in the village for work in casablanca. though illiterate, they correspond by tape and intermediary, trying to stay close despite the distance. the village is deathly, abandoned of its young men, its proud, ancient equine culture destroyed. the women who stay there do so with their children in an attempt to protect them from casablanca and the corruptions of modern urbanity.

said has two friends, ismael and ottman, working with him in near-poverty, each in a similar situation of dislocation. the film poses the question prominent in much of the arab world today: how does an arab proud of his cultural heritage confront and incorporate modern life without either destroying his past or humiliating his family and himself? each of the three takes a different path to a solution.

ottman, devoted to the pride of berber tradition of horsemanship, has kept with his mother the only remaining horse in the village despite the burdens of its care and its uselessness in a land turned arid and unfarmed. ultimately, he attempts (in one of the film's most majestic and symbolic sequences) to bring his traditions with him to casablanca -- with a futile, heart-rending result.

ismael, impetuous and beguiled by modernity and the city, succumbs to the temptation of a finely crafted pair of shoes -- only to find that the rejection of prudence and tradition for the modern makes a fool of him, as he finds himself not a richer man for owning them but simply a poor man afraid to lose what he has invested, financially and emotionally, so much in. predictably, perhaps, his investment is comically but cruelly and painfully lost along with his dignity.

yet the story of said -- the dedicated, serious pragmatist of the three -- is most tragic. as his employer's best worker, he finds it difficult to get away from his responsibilities to spend time with his family. aicha pines for him, and curses casablanca and modernity for stealing him, despite his promises and intentions, as it has stolen so many others. when aicha gives birth to a second son, said is not there; when she fails to recover from the childbirth, he hurries home to find her gravely ill. too late, he vows never again to leave her -- instead, she leaves him.

if ottman's horse symbolizes the impossibility of idealistically keeping both the ancient and the modern whole; and ismael's shoes the hazards of submitting to the new without reservation; then aicha's lonesome life and death demonstrate the danger of playing both sides -- what seems a practical, even necessary compromise between both worlds leaves said without either.

perhaps it's the fact that my wife has been confronted with these same questions that made this film resonate so strongly with me. perhaps it's the ironic view i've taken of modernity in my own life. as i've said, as a film, "in casablanca" might have been more.

nonetheless, the lessons it portrays are at the crux of the hardest decisions made in many modern lives. understanding the views of the director not only informs a westerner on the nature of the love-hate emotions felt by the east towards the west -- but also of the questions in his or her own life as each of us make compromises for the sake of reconciling modernity with whatever tradition and history we have been imbued with.

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