Grieving women rock immutable Islam


Rock the Casbah (M). Director: Laïla Marrakchi. Starring: Morjana Alaoui, Nadine Labaki, Lubna Azabal, Hiam Abbass, Omar Sharif, Raouia. 99 minutes

At the heart of Rock the Casbah is a death. Well, two deaths, actually, but more on that later.

We are welcomed to the sunkissed palatial home in Tangier, Morocco, of influential businessman Moulay (Sharif), by the patriarch himself. He has recently died, and his avuncular, rascally specter acts as our host and narrator, as we witness the traditional three days of mourning that are about to unfold.

The funeral reunites three adult sisters — Sofia (Alaoui), Miriam (Labaki) and Kenza (Azabal) — their mother Aicha (Abbass) and various other family members, friends and attendants, notably housekeeper Yacout (Raouia).

Against this backdrop the film, with warmth and humour (the tagline describes it as 'A comedy about a tragedy'), unfolds the circumstances of these women's present lives, their relationships with each other, and a few dark secrets that vein the more or less happy tapestry of their family history.

The title is of course a reference to the 1982 Clash song of the same name, an irreverent takedown of fundamentalist Islamic opposition to contemporary western music. The casbah is an ancient fortification seen in many historically Islamic cities (including Tangier), and in both the Clash song and Marrakchi's film it can be taken as emblematic of immutable fundamentalist tradition.

Each of the women of Rock the Casbah, especially the three sisters who are its heroes, is 'rocking the casbah' (or grappling with tradition) in her own way.

Doggedly independent Sofia has returned from America, where she has worked as an actor but struggled to break free of being typecast as a terrorist. She arrives with her young son in tow, though her husband is notably absent.

Miriam is recovering from painful breast augmentation surgery, presumably undertaken to please her own well-off but distant husband.

Kenza meanwhile has devoted herself to Islam, much to the scorn of her more 'progressive' sisters. They see her as foolish to embrace a religion that might innately disempower her, although there is power inherent in her conscientious decision to conform with rather than flee from her cultural heritage.

The film draws a distinction between the sisters' very modern, very human struggles, and the fortifications of culture and tradition that shade them.

It does so succinctly in one notable scene. The three recently reunited sisters are immersed in whispered conversation, during the second day of mourning at the house. In the next room, older men in ceremonial garb chant a mourning ritual.

Suddenly, the sisters get the giggles. For a moment they are collectively warmed by the embers of a shared joke, only to be angrily shushed by one of the men. The ember is quashed by the fist of propriety.

But grief can't be stage managed, and Moulay, the object of all this mourning, was their father after all. It seems only natural that the process should be guided by normal human interaction, even within a ritualised framework.

The arguments and conversations the women share over the course of the three days gradually uncover revelations regarding their father's past indiscretions as well as the circumstances surrounding the suicide some years before of a fourth sister, who in life had been an inspiration particularly to Sofia.

These revelations — of truths that had previously been buried and left to dankly fester — test but ultimately strengthen familial bonds.

Rock the Casbah is beautifully written, acted and filmed, and manages to be both touching and gently subversive. Aside from one clunky moment during its final scene, it rarely puts a foot wrong in its very human examination of a fractured family galvanised around their remembrance of a flawed but nonetheless beloved father.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Rock the Casbah, Laïla Marrakchi, Morjana Alaoui, The Clash, Omar Sharif



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Existing comments

Interesting review Tim; the subject is well off the beaten track for Australia;it is not apparent to me where one might get to see Rock the Casbah.
Paul Munro | 20 November 2014

Yes, Tim, your review makes me want to rush straight out to see the movie - but where....?I'll have to Google. I hate that....
Joan Seymour | 20 November 2014

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