In Death For Sale, the three best friends that anyone could ever have falter under the weight of their petty crime lives and the economic reality facing twenty-somethings in Morocco. They’re lost youth, scumming their way on the streets and in the nightclubs without any kind of direction. Writer/director Fauozi Bensaïdi‘s story picks up just as the group is beginning to diverge. Malik (Fehd Benchemsi) has fallen hard for a prostitute called Dounia (Imane Elmechrafi) despite her status as forbidden fruit. The naive Soufiane (Fouad Labied) hatches a plan to steal a rich girl’s purse that has profound, unintended consequences. The hardened Allal (Mouhcine Malzi) is determined to become a big fish in the suddenly empty drug-dealing pond. Everything should work out fine, right?
Like most films from the Arab world, this one deals with 1) what it means to be a man and 2) crime. Yet, even within a sea of sameness, the film has its own statements to make and its own way of making them. Most directly, with a strong visual eye and a serpentine story where chasing dreams leaves its inhabitants out of breath standing right where they started.
That brand of frustration is key to the world of cinematic crime, and Bensaïdi overcomes cliche by attacking all the usual elements with three angles all living in the main characters. The one-last-job, the iconoclast, the innocent-man-drawn-in, the femme fatale. They all get a robustness here that places daily life and crime under not one, but several microscopes.
However, none of this could have been achieved without the strong acting talents of Benchemsi, Labied and Malzi. Benchemsi is the door into a world that looks like a disaster zone without an earthquake or flood hitting. He’s a natural and complicated everyman who loses sight of what’s important after developing a tunnel vision for Dounia’s curvy parts. His already-strained family life deteriorates while he abandons his buddies and begins a working relationship with Inspector Dabbaz (played by the film’s writer/director). Malik falls into that age-old trap, having never learned the lesson not to free a prostitute from jail by turning informant for the cops. Benchemsi keeps the character’s rough edges smooth and manages a kind of suaveness that seems forced only because Malik is a fish out of water in his own neighborhood. Malzi does equally well as the driving force of arrogance and misguided glory, but Labied stumbles a bit in forming a rounded figure. His Soufiane is often a bit too cloying, a bit too cartoonish, but ultimately its a minor complaint from a good performance mixed in with two great ones.
With the sort of picture postcard view of Tétouan that makes you never want to visit, the camera work here is as strong as the acting. For the most part, it tends to take a broader view of things, taking time out to deliver huge, deceptively beautiful panoramas of the city from a mountainside meeting place as respite from the under-heel life that is so common to the trio that they usually treat it with a shrug. Or in some cases, as blissful masters of a bad situation.
There are a few strange elements, including Bensaïdi’s oddly dominant detective. Slapping a man down to show he means business is one thing, but quietly forcing Malik and Dounia to make out in front of him is another, and his lines sometimes seem like discards from Willem Dafoe’s dialogue in Boondock Saints. The guy is weird. Just weird.
It also sometimes struggles with the juggling act it commits to. With three, unequal plots it often spends too much time with Malik without checking in with his friends – leaving them to make a few big changes outside of the view of the movie. Allal is hurt the most there, but it’s impossible to deny that his absence in the second act hits almost as hard as a slap from a pissed off, perverted detective.
Fortunately, the movie goes delightfully off the deep end – especially with young Soufiane’s entry into a cult – before evolving from a character study into a heist film. The lead-up to the climax is a lot like watching a drunk friend convinced that he’ll be fine doing a back flip over the beach bonfire. You know it’s going to end in the emergency room, but it’s impossible to either convince him otherwise or turn away.
Death For Sale is compelling work with a slight twist to it which succeeds in taking the Moroccan world of crime and youthful stupidity and molding it into something human, painful, and universal.
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