After his critically acclaimed first feature, 2019’s Lynn + Lucy, British-Moroccan director Fyzal Boulifa has moved to his parents’ home country of Morocco for a another examination of a close relationship split in two. This time, instead of echoing the tradition of kitchen sink dramas, his inspiration is bigger, his canvas broader and more colourful. And the flavour of 50s melodrama is immediately unmistakable in his choice of title. The Damned Don’t Cry.
Sharing a similarly shady background with Joan Crawford from the earlier film, middle aged mother Fatima-Zahra (Aicha Tebbae) lives with her teenage son Selim (Abdellah El Hajjouji) in a small room. Independently-minded, but with little money, she’s become a sex worker wearing the gaudy make-up and clothes that go with the profession. After a violent attack by a client, she and Selim pack their bags and move, but when their reception at her family home is frosty and the boy learns the truth about their past, they’re on the road again, on their way to Tangier. They’re both presented with the chance of new lives, ones with a legitimacy they’ve never experienced, but the fracture in their relationship is widening into a chasm.
Truth is, it’s always been volatile and complicated. She dotes on him – feeds him, bathes him – and sometimes he returns the favour by washing her hair, but more often than not he’s a petulant bully, taking her devotion for granted. Yet he still puts her on a pedestal, so his accidental discovery of his parentage and her work is doubly shocking and constantly on his mind. When the opportunities come to take what, for him, is revenge, he doesn’t think twice. And it’s heartbreaking.
But the film is even more than the combination of a mother-son story and an homage to the high melodrama of Douglas Sirk et al. Boulifa uses the opportunity to expose the rigidity of Moroccan society, built on rules which make it almost impossible for those it views as the underclass to find a better way of life. Selim and his mother both take their chances and have a temporary taste of comfort, but it’s always courtesy of somebody else. With no real control over their lives, the few opportunities that come their way never truly belong to them. And it’s a bitter irony that Selim’s taste of the good life is the result of what he despises most about his mother.
In a film that once again demonstrates Boulifa’s power as both storyteller and social observer, he also continues to put first-time actors in the key roles with impressive results. As Selim, El Hajjouji is sulky and immature, yet at the same time vulnerable, so his character is nowhere near as two dimensional as his view of the world. And Tebbae as his mother never loses her longing for somebody to look after her, but at the same time can’t quite gets to grips with the reality of her life. Infusing a contemporary narrative with his knowledge of cinematic history means that, instead of simply putting the mother-son story at its centre, The Damned Don’t Cry takes it at a starting point for a textured piece of filmmaking which marks out Boulifa as a deeply humane director.