Hounds: Casablanca's criminal underbelly unveiled in gritty, chaotic drama
In writer-director Kamal Lazraq‘s gritty debut, Hounds, Casablanca is far from the romanticised setting of Western colonialism as presented in the 1942 Hollywood classic.
Instead, it provides the unsentimental backdrop for the calamitous misadventure of a father and son caught up in a criminal feud, not of their own making.
Lazraq offers a stark perspective on the issues of poverty, criminality and morality in Moroccan society tinged with gallows humour as this duo's dilemma goes from bad to worse.
"[Hounds] is a tightly-delivered, evenly-paced cinematic skirmish into the underbelly of Moroccan society with admirable performances glueing it together"
They are carrying out a kidnapping job for Dibs (Abdellah Lebkiri), the local crime boss whose prize hound has been killed by a seemingly doped-up mutt in an illegal dogfighting match.
The first five minutes are dedicated to Dibs' angry grief. If looks could kill, the crime boss's adversary would be flatlining. Lebkiri delivers such a deathly black stare, that it's enough to make you recoil back in your chair.
He's blind to the hypocrisy of the situation, of course; training your canine to fight for money and entertainment is hardly the most loving act.
Yet this is a world with some semblance of a code, an expectation of honour among thieves, but it's also dog-eat-dog – and Dibs will have his vengeance.
Enter Hassan (Abdellatif Masstouri), an impoverished dogsbody tasked with abducting the reluctant henchman who kicked Dibs while he was down.
He hardly seems up for the job. Masstouri has a kind, weather-worn face and plays Hassan with such a nervy demeanour that it's easy to see just how according to plan this won't go.
That and the little van he's borrowed to enact the kidnapping. "Red brings bad luck," he says and the next day will prove just that with accents of the colour popping up at nearly every problematic turn.
Hassan brings his son Issam (Ayoub Elaïd) along for the ride which adds a rising friction to proceedings. Elaïd watches young men like him struggle to find work in a city that offers little career mobility to indigenous residents like themselves.
The choice seems to be: unemployment, working a lousy job or risking jail by getting into well-paid yet illegal endeavours and he inadvertently signs on to the latter thanks to his pops. Elaïd wears resentment on his brow as he tries to navigate an increasingly troubling situation when the job goes from kidnapping to body disposal.
Quiet anger at his father's choices and their dire straits punctuates each scene with the camera trained closely on Issam and Hassan's faces to trace their emotional journey more than dialogue while they venture all night to rid themselves of this mammoth-sized man. Elaïd makes you feel for the kid, torn between fear for his future, family loyalty and coming to terms with the fact his father is not the man he needs him to be.
As with many North African filmmakers, Lazraq looked to non-professional actors to deliver an authentic and unpolished depiction of the community he embeds the story.
Elaïd and Masstouri handle the material well, grounding their relationship rather than veering into melodrama. The stakes are heightened enough without the need for hyperbolic performances or an overreliance on the sombre musical score. Yet when it comes to fulfilling the darker comical elements, Lazraq pulls his punches.
Unexpected moments of mirth pop up during this haphazard father-and-son mission; The ongoing struggle to move the hench guy's body, disposal issues – "it's a man, not a chicken!" – and confrontations with fig-loving police penetrate the serious tone but don't hit harder enough to live up to the absurdity of the story.
Still, it's a tightly-delivered, evenly-paced cinematic skirmish into the underbelly of Moroccan society with admirable performances glueing it together.
Hounds is playing as part of the 20th Marrakech Film Festival (November 24th to December 2nd)
Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN
Follow her here: @HannaFlint