Moroccan melodrama without the tears
In his second feature film, "The Damned Don’t Cry" (El-Mahkour ma ki 'bkish (2022), Moroccan-British director Fyzal Boulifa opts for a title that is a semi-literal translation of the name of a 1950s American film, The Damned Don't Cry. Apart from having the same title, the relationship between the two films is mildly implicit and even contradictory.
In the older film, American star Joan Crawford plays a housewife in a small town in Texas, who decides, upon the death of her son, to walk out on her miserable marriage, using her beauty to enter the world of fortune and organised crime.
Set in the shabby outskirts of Morocco's Casablanca and Tangiers, Boulifa's film takes us on a journey back in time. Although the mother-son bond is the starting point in both films, here the bond does not break immediately after death causing a dramatic hiatus in the moral code and lifestyle of the mother.
Instead, the focus is an Oedipus complex, which pushes mother and son apart and pulls them together in a semi-erotic relationship that is nonetheless unbreakable, and in which the simultaneous desire to let go and hold on proves the impulse behind the melodramatic twists and turns of the protagonists' lives.
The mother, Fatima Zahra, is a middle-aged sex worker whose chances of attracting men are dwindling. On top of that, she is beaten and robbed by a prospective customer. As a result, she ends up moving from one city to another with her son Selim. The two share a bed in the cramped apartments that they rent for short periods, before having to move on again.
To relieve the pressure on his mother, Selim shoulders the burden of making a living. He too soon discovers that his body can be commoditised on the gay sex market, whose clients are Westerners or "Christians" (nasaara) as they are called in the Moroccan dialect.
At the rougher edges of society, the lines between labour and prostitution blur. By contrast, Fatima seeks to invent herself anew, conforming to the values of a conservative society that she had rejected since her youth. She finds the answer by becoming the second wife to a religious man.
Allusions to world cinema
Boulifa seems fond of quotes and allusions to world cinema. In addition to the Hollywood title translated into Moroccan, the film is inspired by another, more famous work, "Mamma Roma" (1962) by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. In the Italian film, the mother quits her job as a prostitute, to start a new life in order to secure a better future for her teenage son and to get him a job as a waiter.
But the vicious circle linking poverty to what society judges to be a life of immorality appears to be locked, with no possibility of escape. Pasolini's work ends tragically: the mother is forced back into prostitution and the son dies in prison.
Despite the direct borrowing, the Moroccan film is not a copy – imbued with local flavour – of its Italian predecessor. Rather, meta-cinema film production recycles scripts from more than one source and alludes to them in the distance and up close; it plays on inherent intersectionalities and differences, as well as producing more of the same.
While acknowledging the many similarities with Pasolini's film, notably the near impossibility of escape from the choking circle of marginalisation, Boulifa presents a more contemporary re-reading that is sensitive to local and global realities. For example, you could read the sexual relationship between Selim and his French employer, Sebastian, as a post-colonial analogy of North-South relations – ongoing exploitation by the French coloniser and 'reverse revenge' on the part of the colonised.
Moreover, and unusually, this very relationship is portrayed neither in terms of denunciation nor condemnation. Rather, we see moments of erotic and emotional intimacy, portrayed in a rough, queer, aesthetic narrative, which is neither polemic nor gushing.
Sensitive, yet disturbing
As the title of the film suggests, this is no tear-jerker, in a deliberate move against the drift towards the ready-made and hackneyed combination of films with a cause, with all the usual ingredients, and sometimes too many of them.
Covering themes of rape, prostitution, poverty, illegitimate children, homosexuality, religious fanaticism and the rest, the material is treated in a sensitive, yet disturbing way, through which it questions the ways in which the marginalised turn against each other.
Similarly, it shows the cruelty that is born out of love – specifically, the cruelty implicit in any form of affection among the downtrodden – as well as the dichotomy of sacrificing yourself for someone else, while at the same time causing them harm.
Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton