The Damned Don’t Cry: a potent Moroccan mother-and-son drama

Featuring superb performances by first-time actors Aïcha Tebbae and Abdellah El Hajjouji as a peripatetic mother and son, Fyzal Boulifa’s second feature is a finely textured film.

11 October 2022

By Jessica Kiang

Aïcha Tebbae and Abdellah El Hajjouji as Fatima-Zahra and Selim in The Damned Don’t Cry (2022)
Sight and Sound

Lynn + Lucy, the superb 2019 feature debut from Moroccan-British filmmaker Fyzal Boulifa, was powered by the strange, neon-lit energy given off in the unexpected collision between British kitchen-sink realism and Fassbinder-Sirkian melodrama. Boulifa’s fascinating follow-up, The Damned Don’t Cry, is perhaps an even more ambitious hybrid. The gloriously gaudy melodrama notes remain – the title is a nod to a 1950s Joan Crawford vehicle – but the milieu is now Morocco, the margins of Tangier, to be precise, where homosexuality is illegal, respectability is unrecoverable and even the slightest upward social mobility is essentially the stuff of fantasy. Here, poverty conspires with patriarchy: if one doesn’t get you, the other will.

The only solution, and it’s a temporary fix at best, is to keep moving. Hence the peripatetic existence led by Fatima-Zahra (Aïcha Tebbae), a middle-aged, single-mother sex worker with a penchant for thick make-up and abundant jewellery, and perhaps a little too much desperate faith in her waning talent for coquetry. When her latest assignation ends in humiliation and violence, she and her son Selim (Abdellah El Hajjouji), a teenager with whom she has an almost lover-like relationship, have to pack up and move from the tiny room where they share a flophouse mattress. They do it with the practised resignation of people for whom it is a routine.

But their next stop proves even less fruitful, as Fatima-Zahra returns to her native village and is received rather frostily by the family she had left so long before in pursuit of a more glamorous life. This notion of ‘glamor’, incidentally, is one of the character’s most peculiar and compelling traits; her arc might be partially based on Anna Magnani’s in Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962), but Fatima-Zahra has evolved a coping mechanism all her own, cherishing a misbegotten, heartbreaking, oddly admirable attachment to the notion that her life of struggle and prostitution is somehow grand and romantic. Mother and son move again, to Tangier, with their only change in circumstance being that Selim, having overheard the cruel truth about his paternity, is newly determined to disengage from his mother.

Reflecting their increasing estrangement, the film splits into a dual narrative as Fatima-Zahra strives for contentment and precarious social standing as the prospective second wife to pious, married bus driver Moustapha (Moustapha Mokafih). Meanwhile, Selim finds a route to independence, or rather a new kind of co-dependence, through Sébastian (Antoine Reinartz), a wealthy Frenchman who first hires the uncomprehending young man solely for sex, and then, partly as an apology for that ugly encounter, brings him on as a live-in housekeeper in his luxurious riad. Fortunes change, and our sympathies pivot, but Boulifa’s tight, terse script is not so rigid that it doesn’t find room for everyone’s humanity. Where it would have been simpler to make Sébastian a monster of privileged predation, here he is kind, albeit in that easy way that rich people can be kind to their social inferiors. The concentrated, slightly awed expression Selim wears as Sébastian teaches him about the various plants he has bought for the riad’s rooftop garden, is a small essay in itself. No one, it implies, has ever taken the time before to talk to Selim about horticulture, or any other kind of culture.

If the twists and turns of this increasingly saga-ish plot veer toward the soap operatic, there is always the steady, expressive but not obtrusive composure of Caroline Champetier’s cinematography to reveal the ache beneath the artifice. Similarly, Egyptian musician Nadah El Shazly’s score works as a finely calibrated counterbalance, becoming lusher and more classical when the story is at its grittiest, and even resolving into its most melodic moment at just the point that the characters are flying apart in opposite directions. And beyond these impressive technical credentials, there are the performances. As Selim, first-time actor El Hajjouji, with his suspicious but vulnerable gaze and sulky, sweetheart pout, is the kind of find that would be any other film’s main casting coup. But Tebbae, also making her acting debut, steals the show as Fatima-Zahra, somehow becoming the archetype of the Mildred Pierce-style fallen-woman-desperate-to-make-good, while also being so strange in her sly glances and vivid, wholly delusional interior life that she is no kind of type at all. Only two features into his career, Boulifa has already established his own, kaleidoscopically humane storytelling style, where a deep and mischievous knowledge of cinematic tradition is deployed against acutely current social issues, briefly but brilliantly dragging centre-stage lives more usually lived on the very edge of everything.

► The Damned Don’t Cry is part of the Official Competition at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 11 and 12 October.

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