REVIEW: Twenty-first Century Morocco

Through the lens of an outsider, 'Exit Marrakech' explores Morocco, warts and all.

His boarding school friends get to vacation in Italy and Spain. Teenaged Ben (Samuel Schneider) is disappointed that he’s being dragged to Morocco, where his theatre director father Heinrich (Ulrich Tukur) is staging a German play.

Director Caroline Link won the 2001 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film with Nowhere in Africa, about German Jewish refugees relocated to Kenya in the 1930s. Exit Marrakech is in a similar vein, transporting a privileged German boy to a world that he finds alien, alluring and dangerous. In the process, it explores the tension between old and new that colors daily Moroccan life: the city versus the country, modern versus traditional, the persistence of ethnic culture versus influences of the West.DSC_4966His father is absorbed with work, and so Ben wanders the streets alone, eventually heading to a nightclub where he meets a prostitute named Karima (Hafsia Herzi). There’s a spark of romance and they begin a ginger friendship. He follows her back to her village of origin, where he finds that she lives in a traditional Berber community. In the city she wears sequined skirts and lets her black hair tumble down her back; at home she covers up in a headscarf and layers of figure-obscuring shirts and tunics.

Ben goes native and buys a long, loose kaftan-style shirt to replace his Oxford button-up. A fellow prostitute friend of Karima’s mocks Western appetites for the clichés of North African exoticism, teasingly saying to Ben, “Your name is Muhammed Tagine, and my name is Fatima Couscous.” The film makes multiple references to the writer Paul Bowles, who was enamored of Morocco. Here he’s a symbol of how Moroccan culture is strained through the perspective of a white outsider. Heinrich reads a Bowles novel by the pool as they lounge at their opulent hotel. Later, Ben and his guide discuss local sites featured in Bertolucci’s 1990 film The Sheltering Sky, adapted from a novel by Bowles.exitmarrakech3There’s a back-and-forth between happy participation and turning its nose up at Western fetishization of the exotic Orient. At times, they loll on plush carpets strewn with brass teapots and torn chunks of bread; at other times, startling displays of human abjection jolt us out of the fantasy. Ben sees decrepit beggars cadging for food, and a mentally ill woman sequestered behind a barred window. (“Don’t stand there too long,” warns his guide. “She’ll spit.”) But it’s also modern-day Marrakech: camels share the roads with ATVs, and you can rent a snowboard to surf down the desert dunes.

That’s one half of the plot of Exit Marrakech. The other is concerned with the uneasy relationship between Ben and Heinrich. The Moroccan countryside ends up being a proving ground where the distant father and son size each other up: they verbally spar and experiment with emotional intimacy, talking about sex and learning more about one another. But the connection is volatile: they go quickly from candid chats over a shared joint to open-handed slaps across the face. It’s a bumpy road to being a happy family again.

Link’s narrative seems easily distracted, and as a result the film’s messages can feel diluted, but it’s very beautiful to watch. The appreciation for the powerful natural vistas of Morocco, and all the compelling corners of urban Marrakech, make the film feel like a picture postcard with a not-entirely-sunny message jotted on the back.

Exit Marrakech premiers Wednesday, January 14th at the Clinton Street Theater, as part of a monthly German language film series presented by Zeitgeist Northwest. All films are subtitled in English.

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