Trying to explore and widen my boundaries in films, I decided to attend the 9th Arab Film Festival in Busan. The truth on how I stumbled to The Unknown Saint was I just randomly picked a film with an interesting premise and a suitable time. As I went in with little to no information, The Unknown Saint manages to surprise me not just being an entertaining feature but also a film that filled with a deep message about belief and how does it affect the surroundings.
As the film starts, the audience is introduced to a vast desert with appealing cinematography despite its monochrome setting. Then, we set our eyes to a young nameless man nicknamed "The Thief" (Younes Bouab) who panicked due to his car being broke and set on foot with a bag of money. My mind suddenly recalled how similar the film to Coen Brother's No Country for Old Man" and the lesser-known Indonesian film Mouly Surya's "Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts" in term of its visual style. However, as The Thief buries the bag of money in the hill, I realized this would be an absurd film with the reason for digging it similar to a grave. Yet, it will be a ride since first-time director Alaa Eddine Aljem introduces its conflict in a quick and effective way, something most films lack these days with its long set-ups.
Years later, The Thief was released from prison to retrieve the bag only to discover a shrine to an Unknown Saint was built upon his loot with a new village surrounds it. Simply could be a heist thriller, Aljeem approached it as Anderson's deadpan comedy added with a black and satirical but careful approach. Seriously, it's actually a no laughing matter when "The Thief" disturbs a man who's praying so he could receive a service. But I just burst out of laughter as the moment is perfectly captured for a black comedy.
Slowly, the film introduces more supporting characters that reside in the village such as a pair of son and father that work as a farmer, the shrine guard, and his dog, a new doctor who comes to fill the position of the village medic, and many more. This all seems unnecessary to the central plot. But from the role of barber on making gold teeth to the doctor change of job being a central place of hangout instead of taking care of the patients, it does give lots of giggles and chuckles to the audience of the village absurd situation and behavior. As the film progresses, the supporting characters do not only connect the film main plot but serves as a portrayal of how the shrine affects their life.
The shrine itself symbolized as a false god and with the shrine exists, there are some that are being advantaged and disadvantaged with it. The shrine guard is being advantaged with it. Having no personal connection to religion, he instead uses the shrine to take the role of a guard in order to receive popularity from the village and make money from it. Meanwhile, the farmer's family with a deep connection to religion, have a feeling that the shrine being a curse from God as the villagers worship a false god and start to lose belief in their religion. These small examples do show how religion itself could make a cheeky advantage to someone but could shake someone's belief to lost their own faith. However, these messages are very subtly hidden that makes mainstream audience should enjoy the absurdity that the film present without diving too deep.
It's not without its flaws too, where the film became too repetitive that make the slow pace became unbearable. It just becomes overlong with more problems that don't give the "kick" to the audience to be engaged. It also loses its absurdity as the film gets closer to the end and became more grounded in reality. I understand why Aljem did this, but the momentum just vanished slowly without its ridiculousness. The deadpan still exists though through the actors' performance on giving a plain expression in each comedy that's simply fun to look at.
The Unknown Saint, being a debut by the director by Alaa Eddine Aljem, is a charming comedy that filled with a deep message about beliefs that mainstream audience could enjoy as it never takes itself too deeply. It's a very recommended piece of work if you like Wes Anderson films or simply liking a heist caper added with absurd flavor. Looking forward to more of his films in the future.