The Rif Lover
Details: 91 mins, Morocco,
Synopsis: Aya (Nadia Kounda), 20-years-old, dreams only of love. One day, her film student cousin shows up one day with a videotape of Carmen, Bizet’s famous opera. Aya instantly identifies with the free-spirited Carmen and dreams up a Prince Charming for herself. Her imagination quickly merges with the reality of her two brothers, who work for a major drug trafficker, known as ‘The Baron’. When their paths collide one morning, Aya’s life gradually begins its descent into catastrophe.
Passion turns tragic in colourful Moroccan drama.
The movie is alive to the possibilities of camera and performance
ARAB FILM FESTIVAL AUSTRALIA: In The Rif Lover, the latest film from Moroccan filmmaker Narjiss Nejjar, mountains tower above the bright white walls of the traditional homes in a Moroccan village, while inside primary colours burst forth from clothes and mosaics alike. It is a visually rich environment, warmed by the sun, and it makes perfect sense for a young woman in such a place to be enchanted with life’s possibilities. Seen in extended flashbacks, Aya (Nadia Kounde) is bursting with emotional fertility – she’s in love with the idea of love, like a star-crossed Shakespearian teen, and the film lets you enjoy her vitality and the picturesque surroundings before you realise that it’s all a prison.
Aya and her friend, Radia (Ouidad Elma), bask in the sun, sing pop songs, and enjoy the responses their flirtatious glances draw from passing men. In a liberal Islamic state they have the illusion of freedom, but it also means that corruption is at hand. Aya obsesses over a video of a production of Carmen, but while she and Radio can recreate the dance, they don’t appear to take note of the plot – Carmen is killed by the man she loves. With her father working as a fisherman in Spain, Aya is answerable to her mother (Nadia Niazi) and her older brother, Ahed (Fehd Benchemsi), who has found employ for himself and a younger brother with a local drug lord, the Baron (Mourade Zequendi), who oversees hashish trafficking.
Nejjar is as swept up in a love of filmmaking as Aya is with the possibilities of desire. She alternates between widescreen compositions, intimate studies of the young female protagonists and handheld footage shot by the unseen “Mouna”, a family member or relative whose Aya’s lamentations are later addressed to. Mouna takes in scenes but doesn’t comment, serving as a representative of the cinematic eye and public judgment.
Ahed, seeking favour, pushes a willing Aya towards the Baron, who takes her virginity but treats her with disdain. For doing as various men wanted – “I prefer him to deflower her,” Ahed smugly tells his brother – the young women is treated with disdain, and it is her mother who undertakes to get her hymen re-sewn and a marriage organised. But Aya is an optimist, and when the Baron seeks her once more she believes that she is alive, unlike her mother who had a loveless marriage, and doesn’t learn from her previous experiences.
The Rif Lover begins at a languorous pace, but it accelerates in both terms of narrative and visual significance – the rich reds are increasingly revealed as blood, and when Radia tries to imitate Aya it ends in a tragedy that sees Aya sent to prison. The jail is a mixture of the degrading and the fantastical – it’s where the influence of the movie musical is most felt, and eventually Aya and the friends she makes perform scenes from Carmen, linking the real world and the fictional.
Passion is a corollary to tragedy in The Rif Lover, but it doesn’t focus merely on social realism. Aya encounters all kinds of imprisonment, both emotionally and physically, but the movie is alive to the possibilities of camera and performance, creating a setting where Aya can sense what is possible but never quite attain it. The result can be wayward, but the intent is bold.
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