Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 115 minutes
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Jacques Dillon’s “Raja” is a rather icky movie about a middle-aged Frenchman living in a plush Marrakech mansion who falls in lust with a 19-year-old orphan Moroccan girl who is among the workers in his garden. Despite obvious differences in age and social levels and the painful fact that neither can converse properly in the other’s language, the Frenchman decides that the girl is right for him. He brings her into his house as a cleaner and plies her with money and gifts, but she realizes his intentions and refuses to give herself up to his seductions. Unable to get his way, he dismisses her. But realizing he has become obsessed with the girl, he tracks her down and rehires her. Yet in his attempt to keep her in his sight and employment, the Frenchman creates a dumb plan which ends in disaster for his object of affection while ruining his own chances at some ooo-la-la with the Moroccan cutie.
One could easily view “Raja” as either a bittersweet tale of mismatched romance or even as a thinly-veiled commentary on the disastrous relationship that France maintains with its former Third World colonies. But for me, “Raja” is a terribly conceived and poorly executed bore. Pacal Greggory’s performance as the Frenchman is marked by slightly pained expressions interrupted by astonishing bursts of purple dialogue which would make the editors at Harlequin Books blush from embarrassment. Non-professional actress Najat Benssallem is badly miscast as the girl. Her screen presence is so bland that it is impossible to conceive how she could turn on the Frenchman, and her acting never registers with anything resembling sincere emotion. Together, they have no on-screen chemistry and their union is impossible to conceive. The only reason to pay attention to this film are two older women who play the cooks in the mansion and who engage in a weird, endless flirtation with the Frenchman. The actresses are Oum El Aid Ait Youss and Zineb Ouchita and their zany comedy relief is, for the most part, a relief from the turgid proceedings.
Perhaps the biggest problem I have with “Raja” is the depiction of the Moroccan characters, who are shown to be either lazy or foolish or dishonest or vulgar/sleazy (there are hints of prostitution in the girl’s past). There is also a blasphemous scene in which the girl asks for and receives for a bottle of wine, which is clearly a no-no for Muslim Moroccan society. Most people may not think twice about this, but for anyone with North African heritage this type of on-screen nonsense is very depressing by itself and within the general context of today’s French filmmaking. Today’s French cinema is rooted in a horrible depiction of North Africans as being either connivers or clowns who are inherently inferior (in terms of social standing and intellectual ability) to the French. This attitude has no place in contemporary art, and the inherent racism of that notion makes “Raja” virtually worthless.
Posted on March 22, 2004 in Reviews by Phil Hall
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