“Ali Zaoua” is a beautifully produced but emotionally vacant drama from Morocco which seeks to carry on the tradition of the gritty feral street children drama set by “Los Olvidadoes” a half-century ago. Unfortunately, the film never finds the right footing and almost immediately wobbles into monotony.
Set in contemporary Casablanca, the film begins with four homeless 12-year-olds who broke away from a larger street gang and spend their days living by the port of the celebrated city. Ali Zaoua is the strangest of the quartet, an obsessed child who speaks cryptically of sailing off to a distant island lit by two suns. The boys’ former gang locates them and, as punishment for their defection, pelts them with rocks. One of the rocks kills Ali, leaving his friends to dump his body in a cellar of an empty building along the port. But suddenly, the boys have a dramatic change of heart and decide to give Ali a funeral fit for a prince. The remainder of the film focuses on their unlikely adventures in getting Ali buried on his dream island.
While “Ali Zaoua” is a well-produced film (with special kudos to Vincent Mathias’ handsome cinematography and to the imaginative animated dream sequences by Sylvie Leonard), the film is a bore. Filmmaker Nabil Ayouch spent considerable time researching the subject of Morocco’s street children, but inexplicably turned around and created a film where the children behave in the most illogical manner imaginable. In the press notes for the film, Ayouch stressed the film has a fairy tale element to it…but the plotline of providing Ali with a regal funeral seems less like a fairy tale than plain old heavy-handed symbolism and the story wears out its welcome almost immediately. The film offers some ponted commentary on poverty within today’s Moroccan society and there is one surprising scene which calls Islamic burial policy into question for perceived hypocrisy, but these troubling observations are tossed in with almost casual nonchalance and are not given a chance to resonate.
The children who star in “Ali Zaoua” are all non-professionals who either live or once lived on the streets. One could imagine that each child would have a compelling and tragic story to tell on their own, but in this film their genuine personalities are kept out of sight and replaced by one-dimensional characters. And, truth be told, it seems that the youngsters here studied acting with Jake Lloyd, resulting in a film overpopulated with untalented child actors who never develop a bond with the camera.
“Ali Zaoua,” which played at the World Cinema section of Sundance, was Morocco’s entry in this year’s Academy Award competition for Best Foreign-Language Film. It did not get the nomination and, for once, the Academy voters cannot be faulted for their tastes in global cinema.