British-Moroccan director Fyzal Boulifa's second film tips its hat to the grand Hollywood tradition, but this mother-son tale feels slight
After scooping two nominations at the British Independent Film Awards for his 2019 debut feature Lynn + Lucy, British-Moroccan director Fyzal Boulifa has moved away from the kitchen sink – and from decidedly British influences such as Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh – for his second feature. He turns his gaze to Morocco and to a grander Hollywood tradition, tipping his hat to Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Joan Crawford and faded grand dames to bring this slight and meandering story about a struggling mother and son to life.
Having survived in relative poverty their entire lives, drifting nomadically between several Moroccan cities, “widow” Fatima-Zahra (Aicha Tebbae) and her sullen teenage son Selim (Abdellah El Hajjouji) are once again on the move after Fatima-Zahra is attacked and robbed by a customer with whom she has arranged to sell sex. Her son is disgusted by their desperate situation and his unspoken cognisance of the true nature of his mother’s job, and yet he is protective of her; they seem to share an uncommonly intimate sense of corporeal closeness, spending nights curled up together on dirty mattresses, feeding each other stolen food.
After being snubbed by Fatima-Zahra’s family, who have remained in a small village and believe that she has become a corrupt and frivolous modern woman, the pair are forced once more to journey to Tangiers, where it’s now Selim’s turn to use sex work as a way to survive, meeting Frenchman (120 BPM and Anatomy of a Fall’s Antoine Reinartz) in the process. The towns and cities that they lurk on the fringes of are replete with dank interiors, chancers, and a whiff of desperation: everyone is struggling, struggling, struggling, no one more than Selim and Fatima-Zahra. It is within Selim’s storyline that The Damned Don’t Cry shows the most promise, navigating the continuing fall-out of colonialism in 21st century North Africa and the protagonist’s sexual shame and self-loathing.
The film unfolds in a series of lethargic tableaux, the camera itself too worn down from life’s exigencies, drooping its focus to and from Fatima-Zahra and Selim, or static and judging as they find themselves in yet another predicament. To temper this visual apathy, Nadah El Shazly’s score is frequently wonderful: just hammy enough to add a blush of feeling to proceedings, often with the sonic effect of several instruments being whirled in a salad spinner.
But the film’s influences and themes perhaps make The Damned Don’t Cry sound more interesting than it is; at two hours and without much incident, it crawls by at a glacial pace and at a chilly remove. Much has been made of the film’s apparent call-and-response with the grand melodramatic traditions of Sirk and Fassbinder. Sure, we have here a sense of despair rooted in a selfish society that enables suffering for minorities, and the heavily maquillaged styling of Fatima-Zahra, red lipstick bleeding at the edges, is a reminder of her age and faded glamour. But this film lacked those other films’ sense of stakes. With Boulifa having directed such neutered performances – not bad ones, to be clear, despite the fact that Tebbae and El Hajjouji are first-time actors – we’re held at a constant remove, a lack of light and shade.
It’s a shame, because while we understand the monstrous misfortune of these characters, we don’t care about them as much as we should. Maybe in this way, the audience is meant to mirror the society at large that discards Fatima-Zahra and Selim. By correctly depicting the torturous nature of inherited cultural codes and the interminable need to lie to survive in modern-day conservative Morocco, Boulifa has constructed a film that knows its subjects, but isn’t sure what it wants us, the audience, to take away.
The Damned Don't Cry is released in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema on 7 July.Where to watch