WWW: WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD
Director of Programming, Austin Film Society
“On the day I say I love you, you’ll be lost forever.” – Kenza
Suggestive of the early James Bond movies, the title sequence of WWW: WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD prepares us for a slick cinematic style and a suave protagonist. But unlike 007, who works for an official government agency, Kamel is on his own as a hired killer in Casablanca and Rabat, Morocco. He receives data about his targets online, never sees his employer, and carries out the hits very smoothly and without emotion. However, unlike Bond, who had a string of sexual liaisons in each film, Kamel makes the fatal mistake of falling in love. He has a prostitute, Souad, available at any time he wishes, but once he hears the voice of Souad’s friend, Kenza, he is smitten and can’t stop listening to phone recordings he has made of her. She is coy and fatalistic in descriptions of herself and her problems with love in the past. But what really keeps her from giving in to Kamel’s desires to meet her is her own obsession over a man she has seen on the streets, a man who “electrifies” her body. But she has never spoken to him and he seems oblivious of her existence. As the film unfolds, Kamel continues to be enraptured by the voice of his “Cinderella” while Kenza is obsessed with occasional glimpses of “the man.” While keeping them apart for a while, fate will eventually resolve that tension.
Humphrey Bogart would be absolutely lost in this new Casablanca, full of tall buildings, traffic circles, neon lights, and internet cafes (probably with one called Rick’s). But just as in CASABLANCA (1942), there are still hopeful people wanting to leave Morocco for other places. False documents and money are the requirements for that dream, during World War II and in the present. That desire to leave Casablanca is echoed in a third protagonist in the film – Hicham, who takes good care of his handicapped father, a street beggar. The young man’s dream is to get to Europe. First he tries falsifying an invitation letter from an Italian company, but the embassy recognizes it as fake. He then realizes he will have to emigrate from Morocco the hard way and begins trying to gather enough money, with his father’s help, to pay the traffickers to take him in a boat from Casablanca (on the Atlantic coast) to Spain. Fate will intrude in his life, also.
More than these stories of fate and desire, what I find fascinating about this film is its look and style. The film is packed with carefully realized compositions. There are tracking shots aplenty, which orient us to entire blocks of city and neighborhoods, while overhead shots turn the characters into chess pieces. The writer/director Faouzi Bensaidi makes full, creative use of the wide screen. Powerful colors are balanced by great swatches of black or sandy hues. Shadows mingle with light in a suspenseful way. There is even an animated sequence, and sometimes color film is replaced by black & white. This is the post-modern cinematic style – surface gloss without a great deal of depth of personality or meaning beneath. Watching the film is akin to looking through a highly stylish European fashion magazine, where the look is everything, and theme/ideas mean very little. We flip from one image to another, perhaps feeling a moment of desire or lust or jealousy, but then another image comes along to quickly erase the memory. To create this superficial beauty of composition, Bensaidi was well served by cinematographer Gordon Spooner, who had done such a fine job with THE WOODEN CAMERA (South Africa, 2003).
Faouzi Bensaidi’s first feature film, A THOUSAND MONTHS (2003), is a story of childhood in a small Moroccan village in the early 1980s. Judging from the trailer, it has a much more traditional cinematic style subservient to the story from the child’s point-of-view. That film was well received at Cannes, where it won “Le Premier Regard” award. But the script for WWW: WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD was written while the director awaited financing for A THOUSAND MONTHS. He knew that after his first, more traditional coming-of-age film, he wanted to try something quite different – a mixture of genres (suspense, film noir, musical, and comedy) in an urban setting – the Casablanca of today. Into that mashup he would also pay homage to his love of silent cinema by having long stretches of WWW dialogue-free, just so the audience could concentrate on the images.
Casablanca is not as exotically beautiful as Tangiers or Marrakech. It is a complex mixture of old and new. Between the scenes focused on the protagonists, we see glass and metal skyscrapers, hovels, passengers thrown out windows of buses to make way for others, gangs in SUVs and trucks, alcohol consumption (forbidden in a Muslim country), and a mixture of traditional and Westernized clothing. We hear French and Arabic freely intermingled in conversations. But Bensaidi admits to special feelings for the industrial/port city: “It is true that Casablanca is a city that I love and with whom I have a special relationship, the same rapport that I have with actors because I filmed it [the city] like a woman. On the first day that I arrived in Casablanca, I felt that even though it is described as a violent place, nothing could happen to me there. It is a city that inspires me. There’s an energy in the air which touches me. It is true that one of my desires was to film this city as one films a face, as emotions are bubbling up.”
Just as in Bollywood films, one of which shows up in a movie theater in WWW, unexpected musical numbers are inserted into this film as interludes. rather than Hollywood-like comments on emotions of the protagonists. The prostitute friend Souad dance with a vacuum cleaner. Cars and motorcycles are choreographed in straight lines or circles around Kenza’s station in the middle of the traffic roundabout. In those scenes, photographed from above, Kenza is a director herself with her large white gloves indicating who is to move, who to stop, and in what direction to go. She is equal parts conductor, choreographer, and stage director. This gives her a certain feeling of power, a feeling she does not have when it comes to love.
Born in 1967 and educated in both Morocco and France, writer/director Faouzi Bensaidi is a very stylish director, formed by two cultures, perfectly suited for the 21st century. Naturally he was his own first choice to play the role of Kamel, the sleek, sharp-featured, well-dressed hit man. And who better than Nezha Rahile, his own wife, to play the role of the traffic cop, whose voice quickens the assassin’s heart.
Ultimately, no matter how global and contemporary is its style WWW: WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD is soundly based on the tradition of fatalism found in Islam (but certainly not unique to it). When Allah wishes or decides that it is “your time,” then and only then will you die. Not a minute sooner or later, so there is nothing that can be done to avoid it. Fatalism may actually lend itself to living life relatively free of worries. That is certainly true of Kamel, and when Kenza finally decides to try love again, she seems to have lost all her worries, too. Perhaps that attitude makes the ending bittersweet rather than tragic.
• Interview with Faouzi Bensaidi, Le Quotidien du Cinema, 29 May 2008, on Facebook page of Faouzi Bensaidi
• J. Weissberg, Review of WWW, Variety, 8 September 2006
• Sarah Manvel, Review of WWW, Cinemattraction, 2006
• Faouzi Bensaidi, Wikipedia
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