This review was originally posted on subtitledonline.com. The website is now gone, so I've uploaded it here!
Director: Faouzi Bensaïdi
Starring: Fehd Benchemsi, Foud Labiad, Imane Elmechafri
In the face of economic turmoil, the lost generation is a term that gets frequently thrown around by the mainstream media nowadays. Death For Sale, the third film from Moroccan film maker Faouzi Bensaidi captures the essence of wasted youth with poetical clarity. Taking place in Tetouan and starring a largely unknown cast, Death For Sale is a gritty thriller, where dreams, ambitions and even something as quaint as love at first sight are constantly under threat from corruption.
Three young men bound by friendship fulfill a life of petty thievery between violent crime lords and corrupt authorities within the Moroccan port city of Tetouan. Allal is the headstrong alpha male who has just been released from jail whilst Soufiane is the youngest and most impressionable. At the centre is 26 year old Malik, who is unemployed and seemingly without direction in life.
That is until he meets Dounia, a prostitute working in one of the local nightclubs of whom he soon becomes infatuated with. As their romance develops, it forms far-reaching fissures among the relationships with his immediate friends and family members.
The trio become distant but come together to make plans to rob a local jeweler, a heist which they believe will promote them to the big time. With the money, Malik hopes to settle down with Dounia, but in this city, it is not going to be that easy to get away clean.
In Death For Sale, Faouzi Bensaïdi has managed to create an intense atmosphere of unease. Visually this feature is a very striking piece of work. Everything from the grey waters of the Alboran Sea, to the overcast skies hanging above Tetouan and the lingering exterior crane shots revealing the characters existing in their homes. Throw in prostitution, trafficking, murder and religious extremism and it all coalesces to create an oppressively brooding atmosphere from which they’re seems no escape.
Yet at the same time, there are moments of levity that transcend the foreboding sense of purgatory. There are, for example, shots that dabble in the sublime, taking in grand views of Tetouan and its neighboring mountains as if hinting at some kind of higher force existing obliviously above this amoral society.
The scene in which Malik meets Dounia for the first time, occurs through a wordless exchange of coca cola set to a firework display of streaming videotape being thrown into the air in the background. It is a beautifully realized rendition of the love at first sight scene, but next to the aforementioned onscreen disparity, the biggest question remains whether these artistic flourishes of cinematic convention are merely there to trick us into feeling hope for some kind of outcome. Indeed, why else would the director cast himself as a corrupt cop within his own movie?
Death For Sales is grounded by strong performances from its young largely unknown cast. At the centre, is Fehd Benchemsi as Malik, certainly not the most sympathetic character ever captured on screen, indeed some viewers are likely to find some of his acts downright despicable but on the other hand you can’t help but realize that he is very much a product of his society. It is a performance injected with equal amounts of naivety and as wrath, yet his personal dilemma becomes shared in the minds of the audience to the film’s excruciating finale.
Elsewhere, the supporting cast is also very strong, with every character confined within their own story with their own problems, sometimes at the expense of the overall narrative. Soufiane, played by Fouad Labiad – last seen in Bensaïdi’s debut, A Thousand Months has a rollercoaster of a story. We see how he is driven to the brink, how he is bullied into snatching purses, beaten to a pulp after a failed lift before finally getting manipulated by religious extremists to hate the white Christian man. A certain scene in which the character appears naked in front of a large roasting fire does, perhaps go too far into Lord of the Flies type territory, but you can see why its there; a desperate flight into the primal against obstacles too overwhelming to overcome.
As Dounia, Imane Elmechafri provides Death For Sale with its muse. In a role, where she is lambasted for being a prostitute by a patriarchal society, there is the immediate initiative to sympathize with her. However, in Death For Sales nothing is as simple as ‘the movies’ would have you believe and it will take at least two viewings before the audience understands her properly.
Rich with striking imagery and complex character drama, Fauozi Bensaïdi has created a captivating thriller which pressure-cooks the audience towards a finger-gnashing conclusion. The title Death for Sale may allude to a cheap rent action movie starring Steven Seagal, but rest assured it is anything but.
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