CANNES – “The Unknown Saint,” boredom, cash and strange bedfellows

CRITICS WEEK, Cannes – Amine (French-Moroccan actor Younes Bouab), a man for whom life is a struggle of every moment —at least, this is what his weary and beautiful gaze seems to express—is being pursued by the police somewhere in the Moroccan desert. He runs up to the top of a hill to bury his treasure before getting collared. A decade later, he comes out of jail and goes back to the hilltop to retrieve his treasure. Except that, in the ten years that have since passed, a whole community of people has developed, with farms, one-story dwellings, a hair salon and a medical clinic, all signs of a humanity seizing control over nature anew, jutting out of the bleary infinity. At the top of the hill, a mausoleum, erected in the name of a mysterious unknown saint. The sacred structure is guarded at night and the faithful trickle in to be blessed, during the day. Amine is going to have to settle down in this community and bide his time before the opportunity to get to his cash presents itself.

“The Unknown Saint” is set in the outer confines of the world, on a mound of dust and rocks. It might as well be the moon, so naturally one is in anticipation. In a great, big desolate expanse such as this one, exciting things, should occur.

In the press notes director Alaa Eddine Aljem was quoted as saying, “I always start my films the same way: a nonsensical situation from which I strive to extract all the dramatic and comedic potential. In “The Unknown Saint,” I wanted to challenge my contemporaries’ relation to faith, spirituality and money. It’s either the Unknown Saint or the ‘holy‘ bag of cash.

Several smaller storylines emerge, such as new friendships forming (like the one between the new doctor taking charge of the medical clinic and the clinic’s assistant), the farmer’s need for rain, his son’s desire to leave the area. Amine is soon rejoined by an acolyte (actor Salah Bensalah), the brawn to his brain, to ensure the mission goes smoothly. Except that things don’t go as planned, and the mood between the two sours as one mishap follows another mishap, one of which will lead to a dog getting gold teeth (don’t ask).

Aljem creates comedy from scenes of everyday life. What the men of the village gathering at the hair salon talk about, how social hierarchy is tied in to the quality of the shaving cream used by the barber. If you don’t handle yourself properly, the village, and therefore the barber, probably will know about it and you’ll get the lower-quality cream. The robber, who’s now settled in the village long enough to find a way to get at his loot, shows up for a trim but he gets the lower-quality stuff. But that’s because he’s new. How long will he have to wait before getting to his money?

“Saint” is as pleasurable to watch as it is funny, definitely a worthwhile film by an exceptionally-gifted filmmaker named Alaa Eddine Aljem.

This film premiered today as part of Critics Week in Cannes.