Updated: Nov 11, 2019
Written by Chardonnay Needler
In this Qatar-Moroccan dramedy, Le Miracle du Saint Inconnu (The Unknown Saint), there’s only one thing drier than the film’s backdrop of drought-stricken sands: the humor.
I mean that as a good thing. Few movies can directly approach such dark topics — theft, death, starvation, attempted vehicular manslaughter — while still inciting laughter from a packed audience. Fewer still can do it without being over-the-top. But The Unknown Saint approaches comedy in the most basic sense: as the unexpected but mundane occurrences that just, for better or for worse, happen. Comedy in this film is not only the unwinding of dramatic and situational irony — it’s also the boring yet relatable situations faced by villagers. Comedy is found in every swig of alcohol the falsely pious nurse takes; the complaints raised by female patients in their “hangout place” (the doctor’s office); the pauses and stares between various characters that barely cross the awkward threshold. Really, awkward silences and pauses are one of director Alaa Eddine Aljem’s specialties; each, from one of the first scenes in the hotel lobby to tense scenes between the two thieves, are just long enough to make viewers notice something is wrong. Aljem’s found the Goldilocks Zone of awkward pauses.
The film’s a story of the classic “stranger(s) come to town” trope. Thief Amine (Younes Bouab) buries his stolen cash in the middle-of-nowhere and returns years later with his henchman Ahmed (Salah Bensalah) only to find a mausoleum to an unknown saint built on top of his booty. Worse still, not only did his money become a miracle, but an entire pilgrimage village was established to care for and preserve the mausoleum in the unknown saint’s honor. Now, on constant guard of the entrance to the pure and shining white walls of the mausoleum are a somewhat inept guard (Abdelghani Kitab) and his dog (that is, when the mumbling elderly women aren’t posing as guards during the day shift). Everyone around him seems incredibly pious, and he’s the odd man out. But the village finds a second oddball in city doctor Kamal (Anas El Baz), who is sent into the village to help the village nurse (Hassan Ben Bdida) care for the ailing elderly population.
Naturally, with the “stranger comes to town” trope, lots of comedy comes from interactions between two groups of people with polarized views on faith and devotion, and the greatest comedy comes when these pious pilgrims and careless criminals end up acting more like each other than expected. Both thieves and villagers end up stealing from the mausoleum; Amine still gets out his prayer rug unironically when salat is called; the nurse, clothed in all white robes and even a pure white taqiyah cap, still pops the pills he prescribes for patients’ every malady, chugs down a clear concoction from his flask and even watches what could only be best described as snail pornography (seriously, the snail sex scene was probably one of the funniest scenes to showcase the frivolity and pointlessness of the pilgrim villagers’ lives). We’re all crazy, and we’re all bored.
Boredom serves as the catalyst for much of the film’s action. Seeing it manifest in places it shouldn’t, such as Brahim’s son deadpanning when praying to make it rain, creates great comedic irony, but it also serves as the catalyst to random theft and the creation of fake displays of divinity, signs that were merely brief comedic escapes from the monotony of village life yet are taken as serious signs by others in the village. Yet, when multiple characters have the opportunity to escape the endless cycle of their boredom, they choose to stay in it anyway. Is it because they’re crazy? Hopeful that things will change — like Brahim listening to the weather every day on the radio even when there’s been a drought for years? Maybe they’re loyal? And if they’re loyal, to what are they loyal considering all the religious artifacts are created by them? All the characters seem eager to escape boredom by interacting and complaining with the new figures in the village (Amine and Kamal) yet they still choose to stay in the village when most if not all came from other regions. Is boredom just the emotional effect of complacency? The movie’s open ending involving one central character doesn’t answer but rather reposes all the above questions.
Another thing that separates this desert dramedy from other comedies is the sheer beauty of the cinematography. If, somehow, the dry humor and somewhat slow beginning aren’t your thing, you can at least be spellbound (or inspired to paint your dorm walls) by the Sherwin-Williams-ready color palettes that director of photography Amine Berrada is able to create. Toward the beginning of the film, the audience is treated with a beautiful night scene of the mausoleum, its white walls and turquoise trim piercing through the pitch black desert expanses. Not only is the color vibrant, but there is a stunning symmetry and photographic balance in the scene as well. The cinematography wordlessly describes something that Brahim and his son as well as Kamal mention: the mausoleum brings structure and beauty to their chaotic lives even if it is also the cause of their chaos; the villagers come to this to heal them, not the doctor. Berrada and Aljem also playfully use cinematography in a comedic fashion. When Brahim tells his son how hopeful he is that it’ll rain soon despite the drought, the next scene cuts to a small, wispy cloud in the endless expanse of the blue sky and tawny desert. A beautiful shot with an attractive blue-white-sepia color scheme, yes, that’s apparent. Ironic because it directly disproves Brahim’s hopeful words? Also, yes.
The soundtrack by Amine Bouhafa is filled with playful pizzicato and plucked mandolin melodies that, at times, juxtapose some not-so-playful scenes. The music either perfectly reflects the setting — such as at the end when the bowed cello melody drones below plucked mandolin notes that fall just like rain plopping down on dry earth — or humorously is in discord with what’s being portrayed — such as playful piano notes being played when a dog’s run over. There’s no middle ground.
All in all, the film is full of dull moments for the characters, yet there is never a dull moment for the viewer. Something — whether it’s silent scenes that rely mostly on eye-catching cinematography, dryly stated funny dialogue, relatable situations of passive-aggressiveness found in the most unlikely of third-world barbershops — makes you sympathize with characters that seem to have completely different experiences and mindsets than the audience has.