Raja is the name of a 19 year old orphan living with relatives of contemporary Marrakech. Poverty is a way of life for the people and they do whatever it takes to survive, sticking with their somewhat flexible moral code in order to make ends meet. She works for a Frenchman named Fred that has a lot of money and a gleam in his eye for the young gal, even though he's more than twice her age. Raja's culture sees her potential relationship with Fred as a good thing; after all, she can still marry someone else but be his mistress if that's what it takes to make a living.
Fred, on the other hand, is a big flirt and simply wants Raja as his bed buddy with no strings attached. He knows the basic customs of the Moroccans and they appreciate that he's a good man in terms of keeping his word and treating people well. Raja's seen a lot of life in her short life and Fred's a bit of a mystery to her. Over time, the two keep up a fašade where each can deny what they feel for the other but grow increasingly attached even without the physical contact each craves. In short, in a society with few rules, they break the only one of personal consequence; they start to care for one another.
As Fred gets more involved with pleasing the young gal, his other female employees warn him about the dangers she poses for him. Unfortunately for him, the heart knows nothing of how things are supposed to be and Raja is set to be married off to a local policeman in order to satisfy her need to find her niche in the world and Fred's virtual impotence to stop it, thinking he can buy his way out of anything, proves his downfall.
The movie's themes about relationships between the rich and the poor could be looked at as metaphors for the bigger picture or just an intimate tale of two star-crossed lovers that met in the wrong place at the wrong time. Director Jacques Doillon gives the viewer enough room to make his or her own assumptions in this regard, and it works on most levels. Further complicating the relationship is the fact that each come from such different cultures and social norms that deep down they must know that they can never be together in any meaningful way, no matter what they want to believe.
I liked this movie in many ways, even though I though it would benefit by losing a half hour of dragging footage. Each of the main characters fit the bill (well, the gal playing Raja, Najat Benssallem, wasn't really very attractive to me but who knows what Frenchmen like in their Arabs?) for their roles and the supporting cast was solid too. If some of the cultural themes were lost on me that was my loss since I think the overall rating of the movie was a Recommended.
Picture: The picture was presented anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 as it was originally shot. The grain was minimal, the video noise usually not a problem and only some occasional pattern noise got in the way of my viewing pleasure but make no mistake, the picture wasn't made with a large budget and looks like it.
Sound: The audio was presented in the original French and Arabic with a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track as well as a second 2.0 stereo track for those who don't have a home theatre set up. The optional English subtitles were clear and easy to read, in bright yellow at the bottom of the screen. There wasn't a lot of directionality to the vocals but the music and sound effects routinely displayed some depth and dynamic range. At no time did I think the audio was optimal but it fit the intimacy of the story quite nicely and I had no problems with any aspect of the sound. Even the music seemed appropriate, if subdued.
Extras: The best extra of the DVD was the short film by director Matthew Thomas "That Day". The short focused on a man trying to choose between his present situation and a potential future that represents a better life. I hope he gets to flesh out the theme a bit in a longer movie though since I don't think three and a half minutes is enough time to deal with the material. There were also some biographies and a trailer to Raja.
Final Thoughts: In a sense, this was like a realistic version of the mainstream hit, Pretty Woman, with Raja somewhat more true to life than Julia Roberts ever could be. In a time when cross cultural misinterpretations are causing so much strife across the globe, I wonder if movies like Raja hold at least some of the answers to the questions about where we are in relation to one another. If the Arab world truly sees the West as Fred is displayed and Westerners see Raja as the willing bed buddy by virtue of her birthplace, is it any wonder that we are all in such deep trouble with one another? Check out this solid release from Film Movement if you want to see one man's vision of the cultural miscommunications we all need to work on.