What are the chances of true love blossoming between people of
diametrically opposite social classes, educational sophistication,
cultures, and ages? Such a pairing immediately conjures up thoughts of
unresolved psychological issues and potential exploitation since
chances of successfully pairing such unlikely lovers seems so
remote—stretching the cliché about "opposites attracting" to the utmost limit. Those issues are explored memorably in Jacques Doillon's brilliantly scripted and remarkably well acted Raja that revolves around 19 year old Moroccan orphan girl Raja (Najat Benssallem) and middle-aged Fred (Pascal Greggory), an idle class Frenchman who lives in a well tended private villa in Marrakech.
Forced by poverty into occasional prostitution, Raja splits her time with equally destitute boyfriend Youssef (Hassan Khissal) and her best friend Nadira (Ilham Abdelwahed), whose family barely tolerates their street life only due to necessity. They happily leap at an opportunity to work an honest temp job gardening at Fred's villa, discovering that the Frenchman immediately sets his eyes lustfully on Raja.
They begin a tenuous courtship, exchanging brief flirting signals before Raja retreats to safety. Both have thinly disguised agendas—Fred obsessively trapped in adolescent hormonal urges while Raja desires control and power and suspects that the Frenchman will drop her as soon as she submits to his passions. Thus, they both engage in sexual gamesmanship, as Raja realizes the material benefits she can gain by playing her cards right. So desperate is Fred that he even offers to pay for her marriage to Youssef while setting up the couple to live and work at his villa, where he can daily pursue Raja. Unrequited love and pursuit of the elusive intrigues, but will Fred be satisfied with a sexual conquest, especially considering how fiercely she strives for independence?
The acting is remarkably genuine and emotionally intense, considering the fact that Greggory is the only professional actor with a list of previous credits. Shot in neo-realistic style entirely on location in Morocco and Marrakech, Doillon casts locals for all the other parts. Benssallem successfully carries the film with natural and restrained honesty, subtly communicating inner thoughts through posture and gestures. Her generally shy character's limited vocabulary and speech is no handicap—her eyes alone speak of her resolve and strength.
Such a serious narrative desperately needs some comic relief, and what a casting coup Doillon achieves with the two plump matrons that cook and serve inside the villa: Oum El Aid (Oum Ekl Aid Ait Youss) and Zineb (Zineb Ouchita). They are "safe" married females who no longer "play hanky panky" with their own husbands, let alone their lecherous employer who lusts after the young maids working the garden. These two servants try to protect Fred from himself, and it's no accident that the funniest moments occur inside when they joke and tease openly about his sexual escapades and fantasies. Conversely, darker cruel humor is employed outside when the girls make use of their Arabic to ridicule their lustful employer, who obviously has only "eyes for Raja."
"She's no beauty" the two inside servants tell Fred when he presents Raja's photo, and they constantly warn that this "rough" looking girl will rob him of his money. Like loving grandmothers, the two naturally tease their benefactor, and he's open enough with them to admit that Raja is "an emotional cripple . . . a bit like me." They never do trust Raja, yet they tolerate her when Fred fails to heed their advice, and both serve well as comic counterbalances to the tension filled scenes between Fred and his young object of desire.
After so many movies that pursue dreamy love stories, Raja proves quite refreshing with its brutal and emotionally raw honesty. Realistically, we realize such a love story is doomed from the beginning, so Doillon doesn't cheat us with mere fantasy about a true love that conquers all obstacles. Rather, he offers a unique character portrait that draws two damaged souls equally well against a landscape and culture not often captured on film. The ending seems a bit contrived, yet it doesn't feel like a cheap shot as it puts on exclamation point on the challenges and gamesmanship that underscore the relationship.