Coulda Been a Contender: Always Brando
19.10.2011 - Of all the films at ADFF this
year, it's fair to say that Always Brando is a contender for the award for the
film with the most interesting backstory. Screening this week in
Narrative Feature Competition, Always Brando is one of
a number of strong films from North Africa at the Festival, but its
subject matter and the circumstances behind its making reach beyond
the region in ways that are comic and strange.
Years ago, award-winning Tunisian director Ridha Behi met a young
actor named Anis Raache, who bore a remarkable resemblance to
Marlon Brando. Behi, who like many from his generation all over the
world grew up idolizing Brando, was fascinated by the implications
of his discovery, and dreamt of ways to make something of it. With
the kind of audacity and persistence of which legends are made, he
spent years trying to contact the famously reclusive Brando, hoping
to convince him to appear in a film with Raache. His hope was
far-fetched to say the least - Brando's appearances even in
Hollywood films were increasingly rare during the later part of his
career. Yet the Tunisian filmmaker was sure his unsolicited
proposal would appeal to him.
After some time he succeeded in getting a screenplay to Brando. In
2004, Behi received a phone call from the aging star, who agreed to
meet with him in Los Angeles. At this point Behi spent some days
with Brando reworking the screenplay. But sadly, Brando's already
poor health declined further, and he died a few months later.
It seemed a tragic and sudden end to Behi's odyssey. Just when it
was getting good, it was time to go back to the drawing board. But
rather than scrap the project, he decided to revise the screenplay
to reflect his own strange true-life story.
The resulting work, Always Brando - Behi's first feature
since his acclaimed The Magic Box in 2002 - cleverly fuses
the original screenplay's narrative about the misadventures of the
young Tunisian Brando look-alike in the movie business with a
chronicle of how the film itself was made, as well as Behi's own
meditations on the image of Arabs in Hollywood. An unpredictable
mix of fiction and documentary, it's both an entertaining farce and
a colorful pastiche of stardom and the filmmaking apparatus.
Raache - after so many years, finally in the role he was
apparently born to play - stars as Anis, a café owner in a poor
backwater town in Tunisia who looks a lot like you-know-who. When a
French-American movie crew arrives to film a cheesy
sword-and-sandals epic, Anis is "discovered," and his unique looks
get him thrown into a starring role. Before long, he's being
seduced by the allure of the Hollywood way of life - and turning
his back on his friends.
But that's just the overt storyline. The real appeal of Always
Brando is the loose, irreverent way Behi keeps interrupting
the story, breaking through the fourth wall to comment on the
action. In a series of running voice-overs he muses on the
exoticism and exploitation of Arabs in the movies - with sharp
observations about politics in the post-9/11 world. Behi also
includes a generous serving of clips from Brando's films (including
Burn! and A Streetcar Named Desire) and it's easy
to see why the film's characters and Behi himself are so caught up
in the mystique. There are also more cringe-inducing bits from
Hollywood films that trade in Arab stereotypes (including Thief
of Baghdad and Raiders of the Lost Ark).
There are so many layers in this mash-up - Anis's story, Behi's
story, the film-within-a-film, the Brando clips, Behi's commentary
- it's best to just sit back and enjoy the ride, especially the way
the signs and signifiers of Brando's identity become fuzzy after a
while. Thus Behi pays tribute to his idol while providing scathing
commentary on the system that created him.
Always Brando screens at Marina Mall's VOX Cinemas on
Wednesday, October 19 at 6:15pm and Thursday, October 20 at 4:00pm.
Director Ridha Behi will be present at both screenings to introduce
the film and answer audience questions afterwards.