It’s a dog-eat-dog world — quite literally at times — in debuting writer-director Kamal Lazraq’s grungy and realistic Casablanca-set thriller, Hounds (Les Meutes).
Taking place over one long, increasingly harrowing 24 hours in which a father and son try to dispose of a dead body, the movie sits somewhere between Bicycle Thieves, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and a more standardized crime flick, exploring contemporary Moroccan life through a bare-bones film noir carried by a cast of nonprofessional actors. Impressively executed if a bit of a one-note affair, Lazraq’s first feature should garner some international attention after its Cannes premiere.
The Bottom Line
Far from Bogart’s Casablanca.
A graduate of France’s prestigious La Fémis film school, Lazraq directed an award-winning short, The Man with a Dog (2014), that covered similar ground in his native Casablanca. Far from the luxury of its seaside resorts, he depicted the city, or more like its suburbs, as a gritty, cuththroat metropolis filled with unhinged characters trying to stay afloat.
Hounds is set in the same ruthless underground, which we get an early taste of during an opening dog fight that leaves one canine dead and its owner, Dib (Abdellah Lebkiri), vowing to take revenge. He decides to hire Hassan (Abdellatif Masstouri), an unemployed man desperate to earn a buck, even if that means kidnapping the thug (Mohamed Hmimsa) who killed Dib’s favorite dog.
Hassan brings his son Issam (Ayoub Elaid) along for the job — one of a series of terrible decisions he makes throughout the film. The two pull off the kidnapping but accidentally kill their captive, and now they have to get rid of the body before dawn.
This is easier said than done in a place where everyone is trying to profit off the next guy, and where Islamic guidelines call for a body to be washed, wrapped and buried according to custom. By far the less practical of the two, but also the one with more of a spiritual conscience, Hassan tries to follow Muslim precepts while Issam is just trying to get them out of trouble. Their clash is a generational one between religious tradition and youthful ambition, and it nearly tears father and son apart.
Lazraq and cameraman Amine Berrada (who also shot the Senegalese competition film Banel & Adama) track the two from one location to another, whether it’s a desolate junkyard, a farm where they’re chased away by locals or a dive bar where they enlist a drunk fisherman (Lahcen Zaimouzen) to help toss the body into the sea.
Even that plan backfires in an almost comic way — indeed, the film could have perhaps benefited from more dark tragicomedy — at which point Issam separates from his father and uses brass tacks so he can take care of business. The third act, which involves a gang war and some particularly gruesome details about discarding a corpse, can grow a bit tiresome, and the relationship between Hassan and Issam, who say very little to each other, never feels developed enough to warrant our full attention.
There are moments when the film uneasily skirts the line between genre conventions and documentary realism, but the portrait it paints of Casablanca’s underbelly remains credible and bleak. Every interaction is also a transaction, an effort to scrape by in a city offering few possibilities to young men like Issam, or to failures like Hassan. Lazraq’s concept is simple but powerful, and he carries it through to the bitter end: In a place where life is a constant fight to survive, even death offers little salvation.