Cannes 2023 review: Deserts (Faouzi Bensaïdi)

“A project like this can only be the work of a director as audacious and provocative as Faouzi Bensaïdi, who has grown to be one of the most impactful voices in contemporary African cinema.”

Had David Mamet written Waiting for Godot and chosen to set it in the sun-baked natural landscapes of contemporary Morocco, it would bear a striking resemblance to Deserts, a film of enormous ambition and bigger complexity. A project like this can only be the work of a director as audacious and provocative as Faouzi Bensaïdi, who has grown to be one of the most impactful voices in contemporary African cinema over the course of the past two decades. In this film, the director has managed to shatter boundaries that many of us didn’t even know existed, handcrafting a strange but captivating dark comedy that is steeped heavily within the theatre of the absurd, taking inspiration from innumerable sources as he cobbles together a fascinating film that serves as a masterful provocation of both form and content. A hilariously irreverent satire that tells the story of two debt collectors punished for their incompetence and forced into the arid landscapes of their home country, the film evokes several complex conversations, growing steadily more daring the further we allow the director to push us on this journey, on which we are accompanied by a pair of eccentric protagonists who are as lost in the wilderness as we are, which leads to a lot of hilarity, and even more captivating commentary. Simple in concept but deeply insightful in how it executes many of its ideas, Deserts captures a very distinct tone, which is in constant flux as we undergo this voyage that aims to reveal deeper truths about the global culture and human nature as a whole.

The approach Bensaïdi takes to Deserts is essentially a two-pronged method of blending a strong story with a very distinct tone, which are woven together as the film progresses, becoming more impactful the further we immerse ourselves in the environment that he is exploring. The film clearly has its inspiration within social realism, which is one of the dominant styles of contemporary Middle Eastern/North African cinema (although there are some parallels between Bensaïdi and a director like Elia Suleiman, insofar as both of them use humour as a narrative tool to comment critically on very important issues), but it doesn’t restrict itself to the sparse style that we encounter at the start. Over the course of the film, we are witness to the picaresque journey of two lovable buffoons who are sent on an assignment which they believe to be routine, but in actuality confronts them with a variety of different mishaps, eventually leading us to unearth the many complexities right at the heart of this film.  We discover quite early on in Deserts that the humour that drives this film has a distinctly jagged edge, with the absurdity of seeing a pair of delightfully incompetent individuals realize the true scope of reality once it is shown to them in a merciless blend of surreal imagery and bitter, caustic comedy that is simultaneously entertaining and disturbing. This in turn allows the story to take on many different forms and touch on a variety of themes as the film progresses and we uncover more peculiarities that define this metaphysical journey.

The aspect of absurdism in art is that it is constantly reduced to works that tend to fall victim to their own eccentricities, when in reality some of the most impactful concepts are packaged in these bundles of off-kilter surrealism. Deserts is an excellent example of this in practice, since once we look beyond the satirical humour, we find that there is a deeper meaning lurking beneath the surface of this film. The characters of Mehdi and Hamid (portrayed brilliantly by Fehd Benchemsi and Abdelhadi Talbi) may lack good judgment and border on outright idiotic, but they are still sympathetic figures, navigating a vocational cul-de-sac that stirs immense frustration in the pair. This film examines social structure, weaving a fascinating tapestry of the modern world, alongside the idea of the interminable ennui of contemporary existence, the two being portrayed in tandem. The melancholic interludes become much more frequent as the film moves along and we see more of these characters’ journeys strike a chord, shifting the mood to a place of profound sadness as we see this self-reflective meditation on contemporary life. What begins as a satirical dark comedy eventually evolves into a modern parable about social decline, the prevalence of hedonism and the sheer greed, all of which are interwoven into the story. It can come to feel impenetrable at times, and some of the plot developments can be bewildering – however, it is clear quite early on that this is a film driven by atmosphere more than anything else, and under the careful guidance of the director, we eventually find all these unique elements coming together remarkably well.

Deserts is certainly not afraid to find the most sensitive cultural touchpoints and continuously prod at them until there is a reaction. It’s this willingness to unsettle and deconstruct that makes this such an effective piece of socially conscious, culturally resonant filmmaking, which is to be expected from a director who has spent years dismantling perceptions of culture and its relationship with the modern world. The rare kind of satire that is both cognizant of the past and aware of the future, a combination that gives the film a solid foundation on which to build its many fascinating ideas. It is tempting to categorize this as an existential epic condensed into a quaint dark comedy, but that implies that it is a linear work, a narrative that takes a conventional route, which is decisively not true, since it is constantly shifting in identity, blurring the boundaries between genres and philosophical concepts. Deserts starts as a series of hilarious misadventures for the two protagonists, but steadily descends into a dreamlike existential odyssey, in which the true mundanity of life is starkly contrasted with the unimpeachable complexity of existence, which is shown to be both strikingly beautiful and hopelessly bleak, a contrast that is very important to the film’s identity. Bensaïdi has crafted a detailed and provocative examination of the human condition, carefully curating every moment to be reflective of broader ideals, while never losing the rebellious and playful spark that ignited this entire concept.