Wispy Tale of Moroccan Youth and Sensuality 5

Abdellah Taïa’s sophomore feature is described as “a queer ode to the seemingly carefree time of youth,” but it proves a little too carefree in its depiction of two young people whiling away time in the Moroccan beach resort that gives the film its title. Although boasting languidly sensual atmosphere to spare thanks to its setting and sexy, young lead performers, Cabo Negro, receiving its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, ultimately proves frustrating with its purposefully oblique narrative.

The story, such as it is, revolves around Jaafar (Youness Beye, Ghosts of Beirut) and his female friend Soundouss (Oumaima Barid, Animalia), who arrive at a lavish villa rented by Jaafar’s lover, Jonathan, who is supposed to arrive later. But he doesn’t show up, and isn’t responding to Jaafar’s messages. So the pair sit around, spending time hanging out at the beach, leafing through the home’s lavishly illustrated, movie-themed coffee table books, and waiting. And waiting. (And, for some reason, they sleep next to each other in the same room despite the palatial house clearly having multiple bedrooms.)

Cabo Negro

The Bottom Line

Heavy on atmosphere, light on substance.

Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Cast: Youness Beyej, Oumaima Barid, Julian Compan
Director-screenwriter: Abdellah Taïa  

1 hour 16 minutes

Eventually, different people start to show up, including a man who tells them he recently got out of prison after serving a three-year sentence and who stays as a guest. In the middle of the night, he shows up in the room Soundouss and Jaafar are sleeping in, asking if he could join them because he’s scared by the villa. The owner of the house later shows up as well, to check on things.

Running out of money, Jaafar begins renting himself out for sex with various men. Soundouss eventually joins him, offering herself as part of a threesome if so desired. They become friendly with various strangers, including a Frenchman whom they ask about life in France. They host parties in the house, complete with dancing and a home-cooked meal of chicken and couscous, made from live chickens purchased in a nearby market (they decline the seller’s offer to butcher them). And many of the guests stay over, all of them sleeping in one room like at a giant slumber party.

A woman and her young children arrive, returning Jonathan’s clothes that had been left for cleaning. The owner of the house returns, calling Soundouss and Jaafar dirty and ordering them to leave. And when Jaafar is finally able to reach Jonathan on the phone, things don’t go quite as he was expecting.

Presumably, we’re meant to admire the two main characters as free spirits, not bound by conventional morality and luxuriating in the power of their youthful sensuality. But despite the lead performers’ best efforts, they remain ciphers at best, as mysterious and inexplicable as the circumstances surrounding them. The director-screenwriter’s attempt to provide a surreal air of mystery about the non-appearance of Jaafar’s lover doesn’t add up to much; nor do the mildly absurdist episodes involving the subsidiary characters.

By the time it reaches its unsatisfying conclusion, we’ve lost patience with Cabo Negro despite its brief 76-minute running time. You’re left wondering how much it would cost to rent a house like the one in the film and exactly how far it is from the beach.

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