“With that hair,” comments a local pilgrim to a visiting stranger with long curls and a full beard, “you’re either sick, a wacko, or a scientist.” It sums up Alaa Eddine Aljem’s gentle farce about faith perfectly: a touch of religious imagery, a dose of gentle humour and a hint of absurdity.
Younes Bouab’s hapless thief, who returns to his buried loot after prison only to find that X now marks the spot of a shrine to an “unknown saint”, bears no name. Like a Biblical parable, most of the assortment of oddballs who’ve built a working village around the shrine are identified by their role: the doctor, the barber-dentist, the guard. This doesn’t make them any less well-rounded; in fact, the script carries a great deal on very little, with dynamics deftly established without more than the bare amount of backstory.
As each character gradually reveals what they place their faith in – hidden treasure, a dog, a hip flask – The Unknown Saint lampoons the absurdity of belief, while at the same time acknowledging how critical it is. Indeed, the drought-ridden desert setting is the perfect place for faith to flourish; hope is essential, and the constant background of flies buzzing makes for quiet but persistent mental noise.
There’s a touching note in the quiet determination of Mohammed Nouaimane’s Brahim, who sits in the dying neighbouring village watching his friends and family being tempted away. Yet his conviction in the earth of his birth is no more logical than the mistaken ministrations at the shrine he scorns.
The Unknown Saint is a film that really enjoys itself; it strips down to basics but finds room for plenty of wry observational humour, moments of warmth and a dash of contemplation. It doesn’t ask its audience to stop believing, but simply ask themselves what that belief is for.
CAST: Younes Bouab, Mohammed Nouaimane, Abdelghani Kitab, Bouchaib Semmak
DIRECTOR: Alaa Eddine Aljem
WRITER: Alaa Eddine Aljem
SYNOPSIS: A thief hides his haul in a makeshift grave before police catch him. On his release from prison, he returns to find a shrine to an unknown saint has been built over it.