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Alaa Eddine Aljem The Unknown Saint Review

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The Unknown Saint | 2019 Cannes Film Festival Review

The Unknown Saint | 2019 Cannes Film Festival Review

Gimme the Loot: Money is the Root of Good and Evil in Aljem’s Debut

Alaa Eddine Aljem The Unknown Saint ReviewLove the sinner and not the sin seems to be the cosmic undertone of Alaa Eddine Aljem’s debut, The Unknown Saint, a black comedy juxtaposing religious beliefs and economic potential as ironic bedfellows. A fable steeped in incredulity with mordant streaks of the absurd, Aljem concocts an intersection of belief and spirituality serving as commentary on contemporary Morocco. As its frustrated protagonist is increasingly thwarted in his attempts to reclaim the booty he buried on a remote hilltop which has since been reconfigured as a community generating mausoleum, Aljem provides meaningful subtexts on the process of rumors reborn as fact, and the institutions which breed and keep them in place. Initially a comedy of errors routine, the narrative sobers up from shades of profane to sacred, which also eventually stymies some of its genre-fueled energy.

A desperate man (Younes Bouab) in the middle of the desert scrambles to bury a bag of money atop a desolate hilltop in the guise of an unmarked grave. Fast forward several years and Amine, fresh out of serving a prison sentence for his crime, returns to find a mausoleum has been built atop his hiding place, named for an unknown saint the locals believe was buried there. At the foot of the hill, a new community has popped up to house the tourists who arrive to visit the mausoleum, their subsistence dependent upon the business derived from the saint’s shrine. Immediately Amine begins to devise a plan to reclaim his money, arriving in the quiet community at the same time as a new doctor.

In several ways, The Unknown Saint is reminiscent of the Coen Bros., particularly the seminal Fargo (1996), which similarly features a kinda funny looking criminal who must backtrack to the hinterland hiding place he was forced to bury his stolen goods in while avoiding authorities. Younes Bouab’s (of Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, 2015) countenance is apparently cause for alarm, classified upon his arrival as someone who’s either crazy or a scientist. Amine chooses the latter role as his front, studying the rocks and sand of the area while he cases the joint. Of course, breaking into the mausoleum is easier said than done, and a watchman’s guard dog leads to a failed assassination attempt on the canine from Amine’s cohort, the sardonically nicknamed The Brain (Salah Ben Saleh).

Like the other characters, Amine the Thief is defined by his archetype, just like the bored, newly arrived doctor (Anas El Baz), on hand simply to placate the women of the community who need a place to hang out six days a week. Same for the ‘heroic’ guard (Abdelghani Kitab), a severely serious overachiever who seems to care more for his dog’s well-being than his son’s.

As absurd as Amine’s situation may be, the correlating tangential storylines of The Unknown Saint are also defined by levity-inducing details (such as the doctor watching snails have sex on a nature program set to opera or the guard’s insistence his dog’s knocked out teeth be replaced by gold, no matter the cost). On a more serious front is the tension between another father-and-son duo, Hassan and Brahim (Bouchaib Essamak; Mohamed Naimane), the latter desperate to leave the desolate region (the failure of which is blamed on the lack of rain and an arid, uninhabitable climate) and the former defining such a move to be an abandonment of their culture (and curses the presence of the unknown saint and the worshippers who moved to be nearer the mausoleum).

At turns amusing and compelling, The Unknown Saint’s subtexts eventually lose the novel absurdity established in Aljem’s narrative, bringing the film to a somewhat ambivalent and convenient finale. Its characters, defined by their roles and relationships to an imaginary saint generated by a criminal act, are left more-or-less in the same realm. While fortune favors the bold, Aljem’s finale isn’t so much surprising as it is fitting, and allowing for the creation of a more agreeable homage to a more deserving patron.

Reviewed on May 15th at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival – Critics’ Week, 100 Minutes

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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