“The Unknown Saint” is an understated, chuckle-out-loud caper comedy from Morocco. It works the deadpan side of the street, spare in its dialogue, leaning on sight gags and situational ironies. What you get is an intimate parody of a parable, a comedy content to earn smirks and knowing grins and never reach for belly laughs.
Younes Bouab plays our unnamed “Thief,” on the lam when his car breaks down in BFE, Morocco. Thinking fast, he grabs his haul and buries it on a rocky desert hilltop. He cunningly makes the buried bag look like a grave, because the man knows his culture. No self-respecting Muslim would stoop to desecrating a grave. Then the sirens wail and “Hands up!” and “On your KNEES!” commands become the film’s first words (in Arabic with English subtitles).
Some time later, the thief returns to the exact spot to collect his reward for his time in prison. Damned if the locals haven’t built a shrine to “The Unknown Saint” buried up on that hilltop.
“Are you a pilgrim?” the villagers want to know. Sick? “You came to be healed by the saint?”
His long hair and beard give everybody the wrong idea. As he rents space in the local inn and takes a shave and shearing with the eccentric yet fastidious local barber/dentist (Ahmed Yarziz), he ponders his situation. There are pilgrims at the shrine every day. The locals are sure they can be healed there.
And at night, the Guard (Abdelghani Kitab) keeps watch with his beloved Alsatian.
The thief doesn’t know that there’s a new doctor in town (Anas El Baz), and that he is quick to take up a cause of his crotchety nurse (Hasan Badidah), who loathes this shrine and the superstition it feeds. Who will see the doctor for a real ailment when they think they’ll be “cured” with thoughts and prayers and shrine visits?
And the thief could never know that the aged farmer Brahim (Mohammed Nouaimane), and his son Hassam (Bouchaib Semmak) are both desperate for rain a place where the soil “is no longer earth, just dust and rocks,” and resent the shrine for the friends it has displaced from their land.
Not knowing he has anti-shrine allies, the thief summons a cellmate (Salah Ben Saleh) whose nickname in prison was “The Brain,” but which the Thief acknowledges was given him “ironically.” Can two thieves, dressed in black, pull off the caper of distracting or dispensing with the guard so that they can dig up the treasure buried beneath the floor?
First time feature director Alaa Eddine Aljemon finds laughs in the elaborate hand-washing ritual the barber practices, in the way the locals start to regard the guard as a hero for fending off would-be assaults on his shrine, the guard preferring his dog to the company of his “useless” little boy and the “ailments” everybody concerned brings to the new village doctor.
“I’m here for my headaches.” “How long have you had them?” “Twenty years.”
Naturally, the nurse keeps the supply of placebos stocked.
The thieves argue about how far they should go to retrieve the loot, with one willing to do what it takes and the other insisting, “I’m a thief, not a criminal.”
The slight charms here include the story’s droll unpredictability and the utterly deadpan, irony-free performances. But those charms are “slight” above all else. In the poker game that every screen comedy plays, pretty much anybody watching will spot the money — aka “laughs” — that Aljemon leaves on the table. He’s not the Moroccan Keaton, Chaplin or Jacques Tati.
But anybody still “looking for comedy in the Muslim world” can be encouraged by this offbeat and off-the-beaten-path charmer.
MPA Rating: unrated, some violence
Cast: Younes Bouab, Salah Ben Saleh, Bouchaib Semmak, Mohammed Nouaimane,
Anas El Baz, Abdelghani Kitab, Hasan Badidah, Ahmed Yarziz
Credits: Scripted and directed by Alaa Eddine Aljemon. An A-One Films/Match Factory release, on Netflix.
Running time: 1:40