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Review: Bastardo

BY JOSH WHITE

One might be deterred from watching a film with such an inauspicious title as Bastardo, but the name itself prepares moviegoers for the issues of identity and corruption that are so pertinent to this 2013 Tunisian drama. Directed by Nejib Belkhadhi, Bastardo focuses on the rise and fall of Mohsen, found in a dustbin 30 years prior by his adoptive father Am Salah.

As a result, he is nicknamed Bastardo by the citizens of his district, a settlement ruled over by Larnouba, who is in turned influenced by his grotesque mother Khadhra. Mohsen’s attempt to rise to power partly constitutes an attempt to get away from the eponymous nickname, and what ensues is an enthralling meditation on the corruptive effects of power.

At the outset, Mohsen is fired from his job as a security guard at a shoe factory for allowing a former fellow co-worker, the beautiful fashionista Morjana, to get away with a load of stolen shoes. When an aerial is installed on his house, he and his friend Khlifa take financial advantage of the situation, seeking payment from their neighbours in exchange for use of the network. Mohsen soon becomes wealthy and respected, much to the chagrin of Larnouba and Khadhra. Thrown into this narrative are the complicated relationships both Mohsen and Larnouba have with Bent Essengra, a childhood friend with the strange ability to attract swarms of insects to her body.

The effects of Mohsen’s rise soon manifest themselves physically. His eyesight begins to weaken, and he eventually has to walk with a cane. It’s a beguiling transformation, with no apparent intervention from any make-up team. Actor Abdel Moneem Chouyat does a fine job of portraying a quiet naïve-looking young man with wide eyes who ends up looking middle-aged. In fact, the appearance of each actor suits his or her character. Chedly Arfaoul and Taoufik El Bahri are well-cast in their respective roles as the plump and aggressive yet slightly wimpy Larnouba, and the portly and debauched Khlifa. Lobna Noomene is endearing as the waifish and troubled Bent Essengra, but it is the male actor Lassaad Ben Abdallah’s portrayal of Khadhra that is the most jarring. Some may deem it problematic to make such a decision, but this casting choice is actually the perfect means to convey Khadhra’s overwhelming brutishness.

The film’s meditations on corruption are quite obvious. It is interesting how Mohsen’s acquisition of wealth and power eventually turns him into exactly what his nickname connotes. He goes from being the possible antihero of this film to someone just as morally questionable as his rivals. He is deserted by Am Salah, and his only real human interactions are the conversations he has on his roof with his hallucination of the murdered Khlifa. A very upsetting later scene involving Bent Essengra is even more proof of his despicability, and also evinces the almost martyr-like aspect of Bent Essengra’s characterisation. Her purpose seems to be the soaking up of all the corruption that surrounds her, as suggested by her peculiar condition and her affair with Larnouba.

Bastardo is an amalgamation of various genres. It is a cautionary tale, a thriller, a social commentary, and a dark comedy at times. There are some disturbingly funny moments, such as Larnouba stuttering while harshly interrogating a subordinate. Indeed, a lot of what plays out is absurd, but this seems appropriate given the chaos into which the district descends. The alluring soundtrack by Lone Wolf, aka Paul Marshall, makes what occurs on screen even more bizarre, but also emphasises just how fascinating and beautifully executed this film is.

Josh White is a Masters student who has had an avid interest in film since childhood. He has written Arts and Entertainment pieces for numerous publications. He is currently in the process of starting a film blog.

 

The 36th Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) is organised by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (a special project of the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Humanities, Cheryl Potgieter) with support from the National Film and Video Foundation, , KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission, City of Durban, German Embassy, Goethe Institut, Industrial Development Corporation, Gauteng Film Commission, KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts and Culture and a range of other valued partners.

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