French-Moroccan film Rock the Casbah – currently in its second week of showing at Cairo's art house cinema Zawya – carries a lot of praiseworthy values within its thematic choices, cinematography and performances, but falls short on its predictability and some clichés presented throughout the feature.
Laila Marrakchi puts together an all-star cast of versatile actors and presents a film with many well-rounded characters which explores several topics relevant to any upper-class Arab society.
From the film's opening credits, with the sound track of American song Rock the Casbah, we see Tangier's beach life showing all the contradictions in the society: from foreigners sunbathing, to locals in bikinis, to other locals wearing the veil, and the overall cultural melting pot that is modern day Morocco. This sets the stage for the upcoming social unravelling manifested in the story at hand.
Set against the backdrop of a traditional three-day funeral, the film opens with the deceased patriarch and father Moulay Al-Hassan – played by veteran Egyptian actor Omar El-Sharif – as he bestows his wisdom on life on the audience before showing us his dead body as it is being washed.
The setting of the villa – in which the funeral takes place and the seaside city of Tangiers – aides the director in creating scenes which in spite of revolving around a theme as dark as death, through the picturesque, naturally lit imagery reflect the film's delightful and at times whimsical nature.
The film's cinematography incorporates a lot of white colour, which to some viewers might seem as contradictory to the ghastly images of death. This, however, takes us back to the Moroccan culture, where – contrary to many cultures that associate death with black – people dress in colourful traditional dresses, whereas the wife of the deceased is expected to wear white.
The patriarch, Al-Hassan, leaves behind a wife and three daughters, their grandmother, and their life-long house maid. As the events of the funeral unfold, family confrontations brought on by his death start to shape up among these women.
His youngest daughter Sophia – played by Moroccan-American actress Morjana Alaoui – returns from America with her young half-American son Noah – and immediately her sisters' resentments of her leaving her Arab roots behind surface.
Sophia represents the daring spirit of the sisters, who left her father's tight grip to become a Hollywood actress – always typecast in terrorist roles. Her sisters Miriam (Lebanese actress-director Nadine Labaki) and Kenza (Lubna Azabal), chose more traditional paths of marrying from the Moroccan elite and staying under their father's shadow.
Miriam is portrayed as an alcoholic housewife and mother who had ambitions to become a dancer or actress. Kenza is portrayed as a religious, pious Muslim, while we learn that she used to be involved in politics in her early days.
In their own way, the sisters are stuck in the middle of being traditional versus modern and between their westernised upbringing and eastern roots. Through the story, this cultural question is often brought to the surface through the characters' conversations and arguments about their past and present lives.
Many women hailing from an upper-middle class post-colonial society can relate to these contradictions, not only in Morocco. Many people from this socio-economic background in Egypt find themselves torn between the traditions they grew up with, and their exposure to other cultures through travel, education and access to information.
Rock the Casbah's focus on its female cast brings to the surface many issues and taboos woman face in contemporary Arab society.
The strong female cast voice their opinions on these taboos – such as sex, orgasms, sexual harassment or breast enlargement surgery – on several occasions throughout the film, during family dinners, and other one-to-one conversations.
On the other hand, the question of inheritance is raised. Islamic law, where the male son inherits more than his female counterpart, becomes even more problematic in cases where there are no sons and the uncle inherits most of the money.
This old law took into account the concept of the uncle being able to take care of the women in the family, however in modern society, where women are more independent and autonomous, this procedure becomes troublesome. Kenza says that if this law persists then women should also pay less tax to the state.
But as the events progress and the viewer is offered a wide analytical array of cultural colours and challenges faced by Moroccan society and its women in particular, from the start of the film, certain events point out to the inevitable twist in the story. These clues would have served the plot further had they been more subtle or even just presented later in the film.
As such while the story is engaging and dynamic, and presents numerous layers of the modern Arab society, its predictable nature challenges otherwise strong structure and thematic choices.
The ultra-dramatic twists, which are quite traditional in Arab films, play out to be the weak-link in an otherwise interesting, progressive and dynamic film full of characters drawn with remarkable depth and themes central to contemporary society.
Rock the Casbah is currently showing at Cairo's art house cinema Zawya until Tuesday 16 September
Showing times: 1.30pm, 3.30pm and 9.30pm
Odeon Cinema, 4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, downtown Cairo.