The funeral is a fertile ground for familial drama in the cinema. It’s easy to see why, what with the reunion of family members long separated by distance and/or estrangement born of malignant buried secrets unearthing those secrets in the heightened emotionality necessarily produced by grief and nostalgia. There are countless films in the ‘genre’ – The Big Chill, Eulogy, Death at a Funeral, arguably The Royal Tenenbaums (where the reunion is born of the threat of an imminent funeral) and most recently comedy/drama This is Where I Leave You. Rock the Casbah follows this structure to a tee, but ultimately most resembles last year’s Oscar-nominated August: Osage County, to the point where it might as well be an adaptation.
Any accusations of plagiarism are without merit, however, despite the abundant similarities; both films premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013, so the parallels are undeniably coincidental. Still, it was hard not get a sense of déjà vu watching a family come together after the death of their patriarch (played by Omar Sharif here, Sam Shepard in August), butt heads over dinner-time conversations and eventually uncover a shocking, long-forgotten secret (Spoilers: it’s the same secret in both films).
The surface similarities don’t extend to tonal similarities; where John Wells’ American film had the dirty, splintered texture of a broken-down outhouse, Laïla Marrakchi films her (gorgeous) setting – Tangiers, Morocco – with the sunny sharpness of a boutique coffee commercial. Meryl Streep ruled over a respected family whose intellectual clout had decayed into decrepitude; Rock the Casbah’s matriarch – Aicha (Hiam Abbass) – instead stands at the head of a modern Arab family, including the film’s protagonist-of-sorts, Sofia (Morjana Alaoui).
Sofia fills the same role in the narrative as did Julia Roberts’ character in August: Osage County, as she’s dragged back into family politics after an extended absence. Sofia’s a relatively successful actress in America, and her contact with her immediate family has been essentially non-existent since leaving Morocco. Once we learn that Sofia is married to an American horror director, it’s hard not to see her as a thinly-veiled avatar of director Marrakchi (herself married to Alexandre Aja). Sofia’s reunion with her family is initially cordial, but curdles as she chafes against the sexism of Moroccan society (case in point: with no male heirs, the majority of the inheritance goes to her father’s sleazy brother rather than his daughters) and reacts to her sisters’ resentment (played by Nadine Labaki and Lubna Azabal).
A visit to a pirate-DVD store hints at the inspiration for Sofia’s name, with a Somewhere poster hanging prominently in the store. And there’s certainly a shade of Ms Coppola in Marrakchi’s reflections on fame and feminism. Ah, but look – there’s a poster of Almodóvar’s Volver, a film about a family’s ghosts (literal and otherwise) that centres on a cross-generational group of women that’s surely an even larger influence. It’s a critical cliché to interpret a female director’s film as being primarily ‘about’ women, but Marrakchi’s sympathetic focus on the women of the household – not to mention the unrepentant patriarchal attitudes of the men – means that the shoe fits comfortably here.
It’s that perspective that’s the chief reason to recommend Rock the Casbah, because the storyline itself rarely strays from the aforementioned clichés. The efficacy of the themes is diluted by the script’s persistent, frustrating overwriting: we don’t need lines like “Woman always get the blame. Always.” when the entirety of the film reinforces that truism. Nor do we need to be told again and again that Sofia is only able to play terrorists in American productions – it’s a tired observation even before that button is mashed a half-dozen times. The actresses do consistently good work, even if Sharif threatens to topple the whole proceedings with his congenial mugging as our friendly ghost narrator.
Rock the Casbah is burdened by these problems and doesn’t even have a scene of Julia Roberts screaming “Eat your fucking fish, bitch!” while Streep hams it up to lighten the load (though I guess that could be a good thing, depending on your point of view). But while it’s not an unqualified success, its unique perspective redeems many of its faults. It’s just a shame it couldn’t beat August: Osage County to Australian cinemas and seem the fresher film for it.