Welcome to the Larry411.com Guest Columnists! April 27, 2013
In my travels to the best film festivals in…
On Friday, September 6, 2013 I attended the gala International Premiere of Exit Marrakech at the Toronto International Film Festival. The screening was held at the Scotiabank Theatre. The film was a selection in the Special Presentation section.
Set in Morocco, this rich coming-of-age picture stars Samuel Schneider as Ben, a German teen whose father, Heinrich (Ulrich Tukur) is on the road staging theater productions. On summer break, Ben travels to Marrakech where his dad is directing a show. Ben has been living with his mother while his estranged father has been pursuing his career (and other carnal interests). In a common theme for the genre, the boy is torn between two worlds, the one he’s comfortable with in his native country and that of his father, a man he hardly knows yet is a magnet for an impetuous youth whose sense of adventure (and own carnal desires) will draw him to this colorful land. It’s a classic story done with a passionate attention to detail -- a boy on the cusp of manhood placed into a strange world where anything is possible.
This is only the sixth narrative feature for writer/director Caroline Link, yet the acclaimed German filmmaker already has a slew of honors to her credit. She won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2003 for Nowhere in Africa. Both that movie and 1996’s Beyond Silence garnered accolades from festivals worldwide, as did her last picture, A Year Ago in Winter (2008). Five years later she’s back with Exit Marrakech (AKA Morocco), which debuted in its home country at the Munich Film Festival and had its International Premiere in Toronto, with Rio, Zurich, and the Hamptons already on the schedule.
The film’s success rests largely on the shoulders of young Schneider. Just 17 at the time, his casting was a bold move, as the teen was essentially a non-professional actor with just one feature to his credit along with several television productions. There’s certainly no paucity of German talent, yet Link smartly took a chance on a relative newcomer for a demanding role that carries the picture from start to finish. It was tailor-made for him, to some extent, as the original script called for an awkward 14-year-old. Schneider is anything but, testament to how enamored she was with his charismatic presence and natural talent. Just a typical German schoolboy, the level of authenticity of his performance is central to the movie’s rise above what could have been an all-too-familiar storyline. He’s destined for stardom.
Tukur is an award-winning legend in Germany, having successfully crossed over into the international market in films like The Lives of Others (2006) and The White Ribbon (2009), which received two Oscar nominations. Still, his character is secondary to Schneider’s, and the older actor's experience shows in his onscreen generosity. Basically a two-character study, Exit Marrakech feels unscripted as the natural bond between Ben and father Heinrich develops in sync with that of actors Schneider and Tukur. The growing affection between the two is palpable, although a great deal of patience is required on the part of the viewer as the layers are slowly peeled away.
Ben’s love interest Karima, played by Hafsia Herzi, is a young French actress who won France’s equivalent of the Oscar in 2007 as Most Promising Newcomer for her first feature The Secret of the Grain. She’s simply delightful in her portrayal of a girl spotted by Ben along the way, a local whose traditional ways cast an exotic spell on the boy. The time Ben spends with Karima are some of the most thoughtful, heartfelt sequences in the film.
Link smartly sticks with the same creative team that gelled so well on her previous projects. Cinematographer Bella Halben also shot her last movie, while both composer Niki Reiser and editor Patricia Rommel worked on her previous four titles. Rommel also edited the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others (2006). The unspoken language of experienced collaborators translates into a beautifully orchestrated production that's magnificent in its execution.
Exit Marrakech has a foreign film sensibility from the start, with a look and sound that honors the local culture, amounting to a polished family travelogue. Production values are high but stray from Hollywood slick. Natural lighting is used in scenes where villages have no electricity and the action is lit by candles and lanterns. Halben’s camerawork is simply stunning, a loving video postcard from Morocco. Marrakech is full of life, and one can almost smell the marketplace where Ben begins to discover local treasures. As the narrative moves from the city to the mountains to the dunes, we can feel the dust rising from the desert floor. Many scenes employed guerrilla filmmaking, eschewing permits, as the camera captures real life, literally, and local residents – not actors – throughout Ben’s journey. Halben often relies on handheld camera, with numerous intimate closeups of the young man as he’s lit like a Greek (German) god. The camera loves him, and the audience’s emotional relationship with the boy is key to the film’s effect on the viewer.
Reiser’s score is a mashup of traditional Middle Eastern music and contemporary styles. The plaintive, haunting strains of Moroccan songs match the changes that take place in the protagonist’s persona.
Coming-of-age films are ubiquitous at festivals and tend to be somewhat formulaic. The often predictable character arcs are filled with mild tension, both psychological and sexual. In this case (as in many), the parents split because of a cheating husband, leaving the boy to grow up without a father figure. The estranged dad makes repeated feeble attempts to bond with his adolescent son. Vacation comes along and the boy makes the decision to go to his father’s place abroad, which he sees not so much as a chance to reconcile with his dad as much as an opportunity to wander off and find himself. What happens next is believable or not in direct proportion to the credibility of the son’s performance, and that’s where Exit Marrakech departs from the norm. The initially brooding Ben endears himself to the audience through playful interactions with the local kids. That Ben is surprisingly sweet is something we see coming, but it reveals itself slowly, as his guard comes down and he opens up to the possibilities presented by this new world. These are themes we’ve seen before, but not done with this much cultural richness and grace.
At just over two hours, Exit Marrakech is a Cinemascope widescreen mini-epic that was a standout among the titles screened here. It was the first movie which my informal attendees’ poll placed at the top, and it remained in that position through the end of the week, being among the most frequently mentioned titles after, “What have you liked?” Foreign films are a tough sell in the States. It deserves domestic distribution and is sure to be an audience-pleaser. Put Exit Marrakech on your radar. You’ll be glad you did.
NOTE: I selected Exit Marrakech for my Toronto International Film Festival Top Picks. The film has distribution in several overseas territories, including Germany through StudioCanal and Switzerland via Ascot Elite Entertainment Group. It has yet to be picked up for North American distribution.
The German trailer is posted below, along with several clips and behind-the-scenes (B-Roll) videos. A gallery of film and set stills follows.
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…