CANNES: A thief, running from the police, buries his money in the Moroccan desert, disguising it as a grave. Years later, after getting out of prison, he comes back to the same spot to retrieve it—only to find an elaborate tomb built over his buried treasure, an entire town built around it filled with people who view it as a blessed site.
“The Unknown Saint,” directed by Alaa Eddine Aljem, a 30-year-old director born in Rabat, Morocco, is a gorgeously shot slow-burn farce that finds its humor in the absurdity of life. As the thief, played by Younes Bouab, tries to devise ways to get access to his loot, failing each time in unexpected ways, he becomes less a character and more a live-action Wile E. Coyote, forever scheming towards nefarious ends he’ll never meet.
The people of the town, of course, have their own problems. The night watchman who guards the mausoleum wants to be hero, both for the bragging rights and to convince the town barber to use good shaving cream on him, rather than the low-quality cream he uses on others. The town doctor openly complains about his boredom, coming closest to saving a life when he installs gold teeth in a dog’s mouth. An elderly nurse steals sign posts just to prove to himself he can. The only serious character who the camera never mocks is a farmer whose father begs the skies for rain that never comes.
“The Unknown Saint” has moments of satire, but it’s lovingly executed. Each character is treated with dignity, and even when pride, sloth or stubbornness bring upon negative consequences, the townspeople’s pain is sympathetic and their humanity is kept centered.
The only true man of faith, who cried for the sky to open up, is the one who gets what he wants. The money falls, the town dissolves, the people move on, but the rains do come. When the farmer builds a tomb for his father, it is not for an unknown saint, but rather a man who never gave up on his home, his life’s work and his family.