Director Nabil Ayouch brings heart and energy to the Cannes Film Festival competition with Casablanca Beats (Haut Et Fort), a story of arts students in the titular Moroccan city. Former rapper Anas (a charismatic Anas Basbousi) takes a job at a cultural center in a working-class part of town, and tries to teach a mixed group of kids and teens to rap.
With a style that’s questioning and confrontational but fostering, Anas fits firmly into the inspirational teacher category. His students respond enthusiastically, taking turns to perform and bringing their problems and politics into the classroom. Tensions arise, but the tone is generally upbeat in this simple but likable musical drama that’s based on the experiences of the director, who founded his own arts school for young people.
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Like Anas, the young cast are playing versions of themselves, and bring their talents for rap, singing and dance to striking performance scenes. But there’s an inescapable problem for global audiences: rap is so much more effective in your own language. The subtitles do a valiant job, but they can’t deliver the kind of punch you’d expect from a slick, surprising rhyme. They do serve an educational purpose: the students’ poetry is a revealing insight into life in the neighborhood of Sidi Moumen, and the conflicts and contradictions of their lives are also explored in dynamic classroom debates.
Anas is keen to keep religion out of the classroom, but Islam is an inescapable theme as the kids share their different views on suitable attire for women. Young female rappers wear and discuss hijabs, and engage in heated conversations about gender. There’s a fascinating conversation about harassment, in which boys suggest that girls wouldn’t get attacked or bothered if they covered up their bodies. They are swiftly rebuked, but different positions come from different young women. It’s a riveting debate that, sadly, still has universal relevance.
Structurally, Casablanca Beats initially appears to be following the dramatic path of inspirational stories like Dead Poets Society. But it turns out its ambitions are more humble, so we are denied the big emotional beats of this genre, however predictable it might be. Still, the film has the power to engage and amuse, and it also delivers a factor that’s in short supply in this year’s Cannes competition entries: joy.
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