As the 20th UK International Jewish Film Festival gets underway (5-20 November), we take our first look at the selection of films on offer. Jérôme Cohen-Olivar's poignant The Midnight Orchestra gives an insight into life in Jewish communities in Morocco.
Wall Street whizz kid Michael Abitbol returns to his childhood home in Casablanca to be reunited with his elderly father: legendary band leader and local hero Marcel Botbol, from whom he is estranged. Botbol is returning there himself for the first time since leaving his native city and adoring fans for Israel in 1973, when the Yom Kippur War caused an antisemitic backlash in Morocco. But no sooner do they meet again than tragedy strikes and the son must engage with officials of the local Jewish community to bury his father. But first Michael must fulfil his father’s last wish – to reunite the band and this becomes an overwhelming desire to do so for one last, transcendent gig.
It's Michael's dogged pursuit of these eccentric and impossible, even dangerous old men that drives the narrative. A pimp and gangster, complete with moll, an eccentric millionaire who prefers life as a beggar and the harmonica player confined in an asylum since he jumped into the nighttime harbour swearing he heard the midnight orchestra playing out at sea.
Perhaps just as important is what actually proves to be the film's central relationship, between Michael and an eccentric Arab taxi driver and ardent fan of Botbol. He becomes Sancho Panza to Michael’s Don Quixote, local guide and lifesaver. It's almost a bromance, but given the age gap it's perhaps more a consolation for the father and son relationship he has just lost. Their quest to find the band members is both comical and suspenseful and for Michael a bittersweet nostalgia trip too. His childhood around the band and its members is beautifully evoked by sepia tinted footage of the musicians in their prime. Michael sees the little ghost of his younger self too, haunting the places where he played as a boy.
For the audience the film is an insight into the past and present of a Jewish community little known outside Morocco and into the now cordial relationship it has with the country's Muslim majority. There are stand-out performances from Jewish Moroccan actor Avishay Benazra as Michael and Aziz Dadas as his taxi driver helpmeet. And there's another effective comic cameo double act from two actors, whose names I have searched for in vain, as a pair of officious and oleaginous representatives of the local Jewish burial society. This is a poignant, magical story set in Casablanca now, about regret and relationships, memory and getting old. My one regret is that we had only a brief, tantalising taste of how the fabled orchestra might have sounded. I would have loved to hear the whole of the tribute played at the graveside of their leader.
By Judi Herman
The Midnight Orchestra has the following UKIJFF screenings:
Sunday 6 November, 8.30pm, at Odeon Swiss Cottage, NW3 5EL.
Tuesday 15 November, 7.30pm, at Seven Arts Leeds, LS7 3PD.
Saturday 19 November, 7.30pm, at CCA Glasgow, G2 3JD.