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Rock the Casbah

The Clash aren't the only ones causing trouble anymore.
By Tom Clift
November 21, 2014
By Tom Clift
November 21, 2014

Sibling rivalries and scandalous family secrets come bubbling to the surface following the death of a Moroccan business man, in this amusing and insightful (if mostly predictable) comic drama set at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea. Heavily indebted to the collected works of Jane Austen, the new film from writer-director Laila Marrakchi distinguishes itself via a purposeful sense of cultural specificity within a more broadly relatable story. Rock the Casbah offers some shrewd observations into a society caught between the Islamic world and the West, particularly in regards to the role of women. At the same, Marrakchi's portrayal of familial dysfunction feels so maddeningly familiar that you'd swear it all took place around your parents' dining room table.

Born in Casablanca but educated abroad, one imagines that Marrakchi feels a certain connectedness with her protagonist Sofia (Morjana Alaoui), the youngest daughter of wealthy Tangier businessman who now works as an actress in Hollywood. She's the only member of her family to have left Morocco, and as such, finds herself feeling decidedly out of place when she returns home to attend her father's funeral. Amidst the gossip and judgements of her sisters Miriam (Nabine Labaki) and Kenza (Lubna Azabal) and the cold stoicism of her mother Aicha (Hiam Abbass), Sofia is forced to confront her strained relationship with her late father, as well as the demons surrounding the suicide of her other sister, Leila, under mysterious circumstances years before.

The film's opening titles established the contradiction of Tangiers, as women in conservative religious garb relax on the beach alongside others in bikinis. Although still governed by long-standing patriarchal traditions, there's a sense that the country's value structures are becoming increasingly outdated. Marrakchi, an outspoken feminist, laces her mannered domestic comedy with no shortage of scathing social criticism, including a contemptuous portrait of a deadbeat uncle who stands to inherit the family fortune simply because he's a man. Nor does she show any qualms in calling out the exaggerated assumptions many westerners have about the Muslim world: one of the great recurring jokes of the film revolves around Sofia's inability to find an acting job playing anything other than a terrorist.

The film is at its best when poking fun at cultural stereotypes such as these. Even as religious men prepare the deceased man's body for burial, his crotchety old mother-in-law chows down on a McDonald's value meal in the other room. We watch the sisters drink like fish, joking and giggling about sex. Likewise, we watch them argue, bitterly and without any sense of decorum. In other words, they're a family, probably a lot like your own. Loud. Judgmental. But mostly brutally, agonisingly honest.

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