A Thousand Months is a beautiful film which at first starts out as an earnest drama full of eyecatching images and beautiful smooth delicate camerwork, about a boy’s view of his local village. At some point Bensaidi by his own admission strays from this path to create a multifacted patchwork, both frantic and farcical. Some users have found this change in narrative jarring but ultimately this is what makes this film a spectacular, truly exceptional piece of work. The idea of childhood drama using the infant as the viewers innocent eyes has been well discussed on this site, and intially this is what the viewer is prepared for. With this said from the very start we are introduced to the wit and humour that overtakes the second half, Malika smoking pot to Kate Bush’s Babushka, Mehdi frantically beating up his friend or smacking his classmates with a stick and the teacher asking the other pupils to applaud him. This film is filled with so many small delightful vignettes. Slowly the narrative builds pace, more characters are introduced, the humour becomes broader and more farcical until the very end we witness the hysterical wedding scene that Kusturica himself would be proud of.
Techinically this film is a marvel, the camera is so well organised and beautifully shot. The tracking shot into the televsion, the camera peering through doors around corners of the house watching women dance and mourn are my personal highlights. The Set design is beautiful and I was transfixed by that house as it almost felt like a character in the film, and the outside shots were also skillfully managed. The vast mountainous Moroccan landscape standing cold and forboding. The Cast are all excellent with special mentions to Mohammed Majd as the aged grandfather and Nezha Rahil as Amina. Majd at first seems a weak character worn down by hard work and misfortune. The scene where he begs on his hands and feet for the release of his daughter-in-law really capture this, but slowly the character’s inner strength shines through. A beautiful scene that sums this up is when he tells Amina she will lose her son if she decides to marry again. His face serious and stern and neverflinching. Amina on the other hand starts this film in fighting mood, demanding to see her husband, shouting, trying to discipline her naughty child. But slowly as the film continues she becomes pale and starts to lose all hope for her and Mehdi. A pale imitation of her former self.
There are two main themes I would like to pick up on in this film… Firstly the role of women in North African society is highlighted here. The ladies on display are no shrinking violets, Malika the pot smoking teenage revolutionary, Amina the fiery mother and the 2nd Kaid’s wife to be, planning her new life with servants and swimming pools. The women are portrayed sympathetically, but are not viewed as victims of a male dominated society so often seen and imagined from women in this area. Bensaidi is completely aware of this and plays with his audience suggesting at first that Malika was raped and killed, only later to find out she died in a car crash. Islamic women portaryed in films much like the mother in the Clay Bird are all too often given the role as victim and how refreshing was it to see Bensadi dismiss this stereotype and give Arab / North African women full bodied cahracters. We also witness women not sticking together in solidality. When Amina learns of Malika’s death rather than feeling sorry for the poor girl she tells her son that it was her fault and Allah wanted to punish her. None of the women work together in this film, they fight amongst each other as much as their male counterparts.
This small Morroccan village is a small microcosm of Morocco and North Africa at large. The corruption we witness from the 2nd kaid, selling each other short, looking after number one, the lack of harmony bewteen the characters, and the chaos that finally erupts. Bensaidi is using these interwoven stories to express his dismay and dissatisafction with Moroccan society. Viewing this film and other films from North Africa such as The Sparrow, Man of Ashes, and Omar Gatlato we can see the seeds of discontent with society and how power is shared within communities. While Morocco and indeed Algeria did not succomb to the Arab spring they have become intensely aware of the need to change or risk ending up like Tunisia, or Egypt. Cinema from these countries should be reassessed as the very issues they raise came to a head and burst open in a way many would think unimaginable.
Lastly I would like to mention the great humour this film possesses. This isn’t your usual African film or what many might think from that term. This is a film like Sissoko’s Waiting For happiness flled with laughter, irony and a beautiful sense of its own bravura, breaking ties with tradition of what it should be…..
SIGHT AND SOUND 2004
A multi-stranded portrait of a Moroccan village, A Thousand Months plays like a vivid North African Short Cuts. Philip Kemp approves.
A Thousand Months, the first full-length feature from Moroccan writer-director Faouzi Bensaïdi, sets out as if to offer us a winsome child’s-eye view of life in an Atlas mountains village in the early 1980s, as seven-year-old Mehdi (Fouad Labied) wonderingly observes the new moon that marks the start of the holy month of Ramadan. But the film soon develops into something more complex – more like a vivid North African reworking of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. Of the various interlocking characters and events that make up the plot, several impinge only marginally on Mehdi. This tactic is a deliberate attempt to subvert our expectations. “I like to lure the audience along a path that seems to be marked out and reassuring,” Bensaïdi says, “only to make them lose it instantly. The centre keeps shifting and what seems to be the margin becomes the magnet that attracts all the rest to it, only to disappear and be replaced by other peripheral elements.”
So it’s we the audience, rather than Mehdi, who provide the innocent eye. Bensaïdi doesn’t over-explain, and a lot of the time we’re left to work out for ourselves who various people are, how they connect and just what has been happening. For instance, the death of Malika, the daughter of the kaïd (mayor), occurs off screen, and it’s not until after her funeral that we discover she died in a road accident – and was not, as we might have surmised, raped and killed by one of the prurient males we last saw her sharing a car with. Similarly when the schoolteacher’s all-important chair vanishes overnight it’s a while before we learn that Mehdi’s grandfather Ahmed (Mohammed Majd) sold it to buy clothes for the boy to wear on Holy Night. And just why, come to that, the chair should have to be toted around by a favoured pupil rather than left in the classroom remains a mystery.
Still, these enigmatic elements, rather than distancing us, engage our curiosity and draw us into the action. For most of the film Bensaïdi’s dispassionate, quizzical approach pays off, allowing brief incidental scenes to carry a wealth of social and personal detail – like the one where a wedding caterer, buying the chair from Ahmed, sketches in his whole backstory in a few self-satisfied phrases and gestures. Not that the film succumbs to starry-eyed nostalgia; we’re left in no doubt that this is a narrow, censorious society, where religion serves largely as a source of fear and a means of coercion. Throughout the action Mehdi is eagerly looking forward to a key rite of passage: his first Ramadan fast on the penultimate night of the month (the ‘Holy Night’, said to be worth by itself a whole thousand months’ fasting – hence the film’s title). But on the crucial day he inadvertently breaks his fast, thereafter being so stricken with terror that he flees from the mosque, convinced a vengeful deity is about to strike him down. And when Malika dies no one expresses regret for the loss of a lively, intelligent young woman; her death is seen, with sour satisfaction, as Allah’s punishment on her for not having fasted.
This punitive take on religion reflects the society that nurtures it. Justice is in short supply: Mehdi’s father Abdelkrim, (Abdellah Chicha) it is implied, has been jailed for nearly a year without being charged, merely for holding the wrong political opinions, and on the strength of this his father Ahmed has had his land confiscated. When Abdelkrim’s wife Amina (Nezha Rahil) protests that the first visit she has been granted to her husband is cancelled with no reason given, the prison governor has her dragged off and roughed up. This repressive attitude permeates almost all social relationships. The moqadam, the kaïd’s assistant, enjoys flaunting his authority over the villagers, and schoolteacher Marzouk, when not writing fatuous poems to local beauty Saadia (“Among your sisters you are the white rose among the dandelions”), plays the petty tyrant with his pupils. His idea of showing favouritism to Mehdi, as the son of a fellow teacher, is to order him to administer beatings to his schoolfellows. Not surprisingly, they take the first chance to get their own back on the boy.
Bensaïdi observes this and other incidents with sympathetic but ironic detachment. Close-ups are rare and camera movement is largely kept to a minimum; interior scenes are mostly filmed in medium shot, often tracked through arches and doorways. Outside he likes to pull back even further, holding the harsh, unforgiving landscape in extreme long shot to let us pick out tiny figures in the stony vistas, as if inviting us to muse on the transience of their concerns. This distancing perspective is enhanced by Bensaïdi’s choice of a widescreen format, its elegant horizontals suggesting a timeless frieze. At other times he uses long shots to tease us by withholding information. At one point we see two men ambush a motor-cyclist, beat him up and steal his bike, but the camera is so distantly placed it’s hard to make out who the characters are. Only later, when the moqadam shows up with his arm in a sling, can we identify the victim.
The film’s darkest strand concerns the farmer Houcine, shunned by his neighbours as a wife-killer and seen constantly struggling under a huge yoke to transport water for his precious field. When, in a stroke of cruel cosmic irony, his crop is beaten flat by a freak downpour, he spirals into dementia, first screaming and hurling stones at the heavens, then desperately trying to construct a mosque on his land with his bare hands. Finally he dies a sad, solitary death, drowning himself at night in the reservoir whose placid waters close over him as though he had never been.
But if the film’s overall tone is sardonic and pessimistic, there are moments of quiet lyrical joy: Mehdi, fascinated by the synchronised streetlamps of the distant city, watches from a hilltop and cheers in delight as the far-off lights spring out like a shimmering necklace against the gathering dusk. His relationship with his grandfather Ahmed is warm and gentle, and – unlike the rest of the villagers – the old man offers him the example of a compassionate attitude, telling the boy that Malika died “because God wanted her at his side.”
Mixing his professional cast with non-professionals – the inhabitants of the village where the film was shot – Bensaïdi creates a sense of unselfconscious authenticity, with no music to emphasise the emotions. Only towards the end of the film, as the pace heats up during the kaïd’s catastrophic wedding party and farcical incident piles on incident, does the tone start to judder, as if the movie were hurtling over-eagerly towards closure and packing in too much. More effective are the understated moments, as when Amina, succumbing to despair as she returns home from selling her wedding ring, lets herself be pillaged of the proceeds by a group of beggars. The scene is shot without hysteria, making it all the more affecting. As the beggars disperse, gloating over their loot, Amina sinks passively to the ground, her poignant silence observed at a distance by Bensaïdi’s camera, compassionate but matter-of-fact as ever.
THE BBC FILM REVIEW
A young boy and his chair prove inseparable in this leisurely Moroccan drama, set in a poor village in the Atlas Mountains during the month of Ramadan. The year is 1981, and eight-year-old Mehdi (Fouad Labied) is preparing for his first fast. But with a dad in jail, a friend in the morgue, and a teacher’s chair to guard, it’s hard to keep his mind on holy matters. Slow to the point of inertia and full of obscure subplots, A Thousand Months nonetheless offers a valuable and compelling insight into a dying way of life.
When his father Abdelkrim is jailed for his involvement in a labour strike, Mehdi and his mother (Nezha Rahile) move in with her father-in-law in a dusty mountain hamlet. There Mehdi, who believes his dad is working in France, is given the privileged task of looking after the local schoolmaster’s seat, a role that makes him a teacher’s pet in the eyes of his ill-disciplined classmates.
The fate of that chair is implicitly tied up with that of the village which contains – in no particular order – a newly appointed ‘caid’ (mayor), a farmer thought to have murdered his wife, and a teenager whose death in a car crash is viewed as divine punishment for wearing makeup during Ramadan.
“EPISODIC, RAMBLING AND HARD TO FOLLOW”
This is a land of fear and mistrust, where provincial government is inherently corrupt, and a wedding can suddenly become a riot. It’s also a world under siege from the west – a Kate Bush song here, a Bruce Lee film there – where the city’s distant lights offer a twinkling temptation to take the first cart out of town.
Though episodic, rambling and a little hard to follow, Faouzi Bensaïdi’s feature debut offers enough incidental pleasures to help the audience over the cultural and linguistic barrier.
Director Faouzi Bensaidi’s A Thousand Months is a stark but lovely evocation of the many melodramas that simultaneously haunt and enliven a Moroccan village in the Atlas Mountains during the month of Ramadan in 1981. The story’s intertwining, fleeting threads recall Altman’s Short Cuts, but the sly playfulness of the film’s tone more accurately reflects Elia Suleiman’s more overtly political Divine Intervention and Otar Iosseliani’s Tati homage Monday Morning. The film ostensibly concerns the coming of age of young Mehdi (Fouad Labied), who carries around the chair his love-struck professor sits on during class. But the narrative soon opens up, cataloging the various deceptions and romantic entanglements of other characters: a local television programmer who plays God by cutting off the town’s entertainment for the girl who goes on to marry the town’s lascivious “kaid”; Mehdi’s mother, Amina (Nezha Rahil), who keeps her activist husband’s imprisonment a secret from her son and attempts to move on with a new man; and the boy’s grandfather, the practical Ahmed (Mohammed Majd), who struggles to keep everyone’s faith despite the family’s blistering poverty. Bensaidi’s incredible use of widescreen is rigorous but never suffocating. Because there’s only a handful of close-ups in the entire film (a zoom into the static of a television program and a shot of Amina’s face as seen through a pair of binoculars), A Thousand Months has the texture of a photo album. And in isolating the filmic action to one side of the frame, or separating multiple actions by creating distinct planes within the same frame, Bensaidi often parallels human movement to that of the stars above. The film begins on the first day of Ramadan with a shot of a crescent moon nestled in the sky near a twinkling star and ends on Id ul Fitr with a disastrous wedding ceremony. Because the film’s simple themes of entitlement, shame, and responsibility are so wondrously cushioned by and implied in Bensaidi’s comical set pieces and cosmological flights of fancy, it makes Mehdi’s symbolic struggle with his teacher’s chair a little less cloying.
FAOUZI BENSAIDI BIO AND FILMOGRAPHY
Born in Meknes, Faouzi Bensaidi now spends his time between Paris and Casablanca. After studying at the Rabat Institute of Dramatic Art, he staged a number of plays. In 1995, he trained as an actor at the Paris National Higher Academy of Dramatic Art and, in 1997, directed his first short film, entitled THE CLIFF which has won 23 prizes in festivals in France and abroad. In 1999, he co-wrote the script for André Téchiné’s new film, LOIN. In 2000, he directed two short films, THE WALL, a prize-winner at the Cannes Festival, and THE RAIN LINE, a prize-winner at the Venice Festival.
Death for Sale (2011)
In Tetouan, at the northern edge of Morocco, three young men decide to rob a jewelry store. The heist goes awry, and their destinies part drastically. In Death for Sale, Faouzi Bensaidi draws a captivating noir portrait of a city abandoned to corrupt officials, smugglers and extremists.
Casablanca is not only a legendary film from Hollywoood, it is also a real existing city of contrast, modern and archaic at once. Kamel, is a hired killer, who recieves his orders by internet. He usually calls Souad to make love after his hits and, each time, Kenza answers the phone. She directs the traffic in the mornings around the citys largest traffic island. Kamel soon finds himself falling in love with her voice. Hicham, a professional hacker who dreams of going to Europe, accidentally infiltrates Kamel. WWW – WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD is a modern film all through, burlesque and funny.
Mille mois – Alf Chahr (2003)
1981 – Morocco – The month of Ramadan. With her seven-year-old son, Mehdi, Amina moves in with her father-in-law, Ahmed. Mehdi’s father is in prison but the boy believes that he has gone to work in France: his mother and grandfather maintain this illusion for his sake. At school, Mehdi has the privileged task of looking after the teacher’s chair. His relationship with the village, his friends and the world revolves around this object.
Ok this is a film I am really passionate about!! I have seen ratings have been very average would welcome any input into users felt this film didn’t really work. I was very excited about showcasing this film and so far no one seems to have to taken to it….
“This tactic is a deliberate attempt to subvert our expectations. “I like to lure the audience along a path that seems to be marked out and reassuring,” Bensaïdi says, “only to make them lose it instantly. The centre keeps shifting and what seems to be the margin becomes the magnet that attracts all the rest to it, only to disappear and be replaced by other peripheral elements.””
^Interesting idea, but that’s what causes the films downfall. I just wish the film had maintained its plaintive mood with those occasional bouts of unintentional humour rather than descending into a farce. I sort of disconnected due to this in the last half hour or so.
I understand where you are coming from Rohit, but for me it was the complete opposite. Throughout the first hour I thought I was watching a well crafted film solidly made but its transcendation into farce and chaos took the film to a new level and left me spellbound. I think the important thing to note is Bensaidi was well aware of what he was doing. He succeeded in what he was trying to accomplish even if some viewers may have wished otherwise.
^yea…I am happy that it was intentional. I am sure there will be people like you who enjoyed this transition. For me it was like pulling the carpet under my feet. Luckily it wasn’t a hard fall.
Great write up, mate. I have to say you’ve made me reevaluate my rating of the film and this underscores the importance of getting these intros up early—to give people the opportunity to learn a bit about what to expect before they see the film. There have been a couple at least so far for which there is no description on the Mubi page. Sometimes it’s not necessary, but for films such as this it can really help to set the proper expectation.
My initial opinion of the film was that it was pretty flat—I did admire the camerawork but I felt that the film didn’t really go anywhere, and aside from the Westernized sister and the teacher, I didn’t get much of the humor. Looking back on it as a farce makes a big difference, and I’ve adjusted my rating.
I really like it. It’s my favorite discovery of the cup so far.
Certainly the way he conciously switches your focus and leads you into directions you wouldn’t expect in both plot and tone are things that simply some people will like and some won’t, but it’s a personal preference issue. Personally I loved it.
The wide screen is fantastic. The cinematography beautiful. Loved this shot you posted above:
I actually had to end up watching this film in chunks over a few days, with a several day gap between one of the chunks. I don’t know if that helped me to accept the switches in focus more or not. All of the different characters and vignettes were great. It felt like it could have been several different shorts, but they really felt like they all fit together too. I didn’t feel like any of the shifts were too jarring because there was a share of humor and similarity in style in all of them. It’s not that we are living in a world with lots of different separate styles. We are in a world with it’s own distinct style that feels like a blend of different styles we are familiar with that come together to make something new. That’s something pretty rare, and something I get very excited about when I see it and it works for me.
So, Kuxa, which Bensaidi film should I see next? (not that I’ll have any time very soon. ;))
Beautiful film. The wide compositions are very impressive. Favorite film so far.
bump for match starting today