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It's Still the Same Old Story

The BFI London Film Festival

Zanka Contact (2020)

It’s Moroccan slang for street fighting, the title. And right from the beginning, the movie pulls no punches. We first meet Rajae (Khansa Batma), in a red dress with a pentagram-chain collar, as she steals a taxi from a man in religious dress (while a cover of “A Man of Constant Sorrow” plays, no less) and then cheerfully tells the driver an obscene joke until the taxi crashes. In the other crashed car, a limo actually, is Larsen Snake (Ahmed Hammoud), a former rockstar of global renown and current hardcore junkie on the run from two baddies – and writer-director Ismaël El Iraki makes a very funny point here, by having the baddies be the broadest stereotypes of Englishness imaginable. But they are not the point. The point is what happens after that crash, when Rajae wipes some broken glass out of her hair, necks a small bottle swiped from Larsen’s minibar and collapses into his arms.

For a meeting of equals, you could hardly do better. And it’s the full-throttle start to a complicated love story set in the heavy-metal scene in Casablanca, between two people who are bad news, nothing but trouble, damaged goods, you name it. There hasn’t been a meeting of fuck-ups this instantly powerful since Fatih Akin’s “Head-On” in 2004, in which music was almost as important. Here the music matters differently. For Rajae, it’s an escape. She is a prostitute under the control of a pimp named Said (Saïd Bey, who bears a striking resemblance to Wings-era Paul McCartney) and has recently done something vile to a dangerous highborn john (Rafik Boubker) with an even more dangerous son, Mourad (Mourad Zaoui). But she doesn’t care – in one of the most impressive insults in cinematic history, Rajae tells Said that if she was in a room with the highborn, Donald Trump and a gun with only two bullets, she’d shoot the highborn twice.

For Larsen, music is a prison. He was a massive superstar, famous enough that when he and Rajae go to a club, the band (hard-rock German group Kadavar playing itself) immediately spot him in the crowd, drag him onstage and insist he jam with them. But his appetite for heroin is serious enough that everyone in Morocco had thought he was dead; it’s ruined his voice and raddled his looks. But Larsen didn’t really care, well, not until he met Rajae. Mr. Hammoud and Ms. Batma are a well-matched pair, him bringing the acting chops and her bringing the vocal talent, but both of them utterly believable as wounded wildcats struggling with all their might to make it through the night.

But the big trouble with Rajae is Said, who bursts with the most personality in this larger-than-life film. Not only is he a pimp, he also owns a nightclub and an auto-shop, both heavy-metal-themed. One of his other hookers is a new mother, and when the baby cries he hammers on the wall and shouts “May he get a rash and no baby powder!” He knows Larsen’s whole story as well as Rajae’s and isn’t above some fairly nasty violence to get what he wants from both of them. But he is a fluffy kitten compared to Mourad, and knows it while Rajae and Larsen don’t. But, most unusually, as things escalate, so does the music. Mr. El Iraki wrote the lyrics to the songs Larsen and Rajae perform himself, to music by Alexandre Tartière and Neyl Nejjai, and when the songs take over it doesn’t slow down the plot. The sense of overwhelming feeling getting the only possible release maintains the emotionality while we watch them play, a deeply unusual achievement.

It’s unfortunately not a flawless one, since “Zanka Contact” wants to have its cake and eat it. The bombshell appearance of Rokia (Fatima Attif, in an exceptionally impactful cameo) is underplayed and then prematurely discarded. Larsen gets to tell Rajae his life story – and the explanation for the astonishing series of hallucinatory shots of a woman with eyeballs painted on her eyelids – but we learn Rajae’s story only when Said tells it to the highborn, which is unfair. But even though the romance between Larsen and Rajae is the impetus of the film, Said is by far the most interesting character, not only in his career choices but in the depths of his humanity. He is much more than a bad man despite all the awful things he does. It’s rare that a movie remembers that there are external influences on every couple, as well as a past that cannot be shaken. Even as music provides the final catharsis, the shadows still remain.

Mr. El Iraki was present at the terrorist attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in 2015, and clearly has unhappy personal knowledge of trauma, grief, terrible coping mechanisms, and the ever-present threat of escalating violence. But he also knows a great deal about the saving graces of love and music. “Zanka Contact” is the cinematic equivalent of being in the sweaty audience of an absolutely terrific gig. Your drink gets spilled, you lose your coat, you shout along with the words until you’re hoarse and your ears ring the whole way home, but you wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It’s a raucous, imperfect, delightful movie.


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