Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/17/06 09:57:31

"Whoa, what's this? is this some sort of STORY?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

During the Jacques Doillon series at the Brattle, I found time to see four three of the director's favorite films and three he'd directed himself. By the time the end of the series came around, I had to admit, I was less than enthused about the whole thing. His films were well-acted and grappled with some interesting emotions, but were so focused on observation and performance as opposed to story that I found them quite dull. I was pleasantly surprised, then, by how much I enjoyed "Raja". It may not actually have more plot than his other films, but the environment he's observing is less familiar, so there's not quite the same sense of having seen it before.

The title character is a teenage girl from Marrekesh, played by Najat Benssallem. She has ideas about escaping poverty, which involve tagging along with her friend Nadira (Ilham Abelwahed) to find work on the estate of a French expatriate (Pascal Greggory). Her plan succeeds; Fred notices the pretty girl and gives her work inside the house. Once there, she teases and pulls back, trying to find ways to work less and spend more time by the pool, while also juggling her boyfriend Youssef (Hassan Khissal).

Neither main character is particularly likable or admirable. Raja is coy about using her youth and beauty as a commodity, although it's perfectly clear that that's what she's doing. She seldom displays a great deal of affection for anyone; her friend Nadira probably gets the most, followed by Youssef, whereas Fred is merely a wealthy man to be exploited. One understands her motivations, though - good lives aren't being given out on the street in Morocco, and if she wants more than a menial job or an arranged marriage, she's going to have to pursue them actively, and be a little cold-blooded about it. For his part, Fred is divorced and bored; his investments don't seem to need a great deal of attention. If he's being seduced, there's a part of him that's letting it happen. It's not so hard to convince oneself that a local girl is interested not just in one's wealth, but in the intelligence that brought it or one's ruggedly exotic and experienced face. A person can delude himself even if the cooks are warning you otherwise.

The cooks are an interesting pair. They're played by Our El Aid Ait Youss and Zineb Ouchita, and the characters' names are the same as the actresses'. That's assuming, of course, that these are actually actresses rather than nonprofessional locals, which may be more likely. There's a charming, unpracticed way they interact with Greggory that's not quite natural, but is still engaging. They're older, and they cluck like mother hens, with Greggory's Fred seeming to puff up a little and alter his delivery. It's partly him matching the style of the others, part being henpecked by older women, but also part being condescending. It's interesting interaction, both in terms of the dynamic itself and how the cast plays it. It feels more like real life even as it seems a little artificial. Neat trick, that.

The story plays itself out at a leisurely pace, sometimes a little too leisurely. Doillon adds complicating factors as he approaches the end to the point where one might worry about the film losing its focus on this girl and this guy, but it fortunately never reaches that point. His direction is assured, handling the challenges this movie faces him with. For instance, there are a lot of scenes where characters must translate between French and Arabic, and between the subtitles and translation we're getting every line twice (indeed, if a person speaks neither language, we're getting it subtitled twice). That could be tremendously frustrating, but Doillon makes sure that the way the translators are saying their lines is interesting without resorting to the trick of deliberate mistranslation.

When push comes to shove, this still isn't anything close to a viscerally exciting movie. It's a two-person character study where the two don't even speak the same language, and the end is deliberately underwhelming. It kept my interest when I'd normally be wanting to yell at the people on the screen to do something, so points to it there.

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