Nabil Ayouch’s Feminist Musical Drama Only Really Sings When Its Leading Lady Does : ‘Everybody Loves Touda’ Review

This portrait of a down-on-her-luck Moroccan performer dreaming of musical divinity sells us on its passion for traditional Aita singing, but the connective drama is rather less compelling

Published Time: 19.05.2024 - 09:31:25 Modified Time: 19.05.2024 - 09:31:25

This portrait of a down-on-her-luck Moroccan performer dreaming of musical divinity sells us on its passion for traditional Aita singing, but the connective drama is rather less compelling.

The very title of “Everybody Loves Touda” poses a kind of challenge to viewers. If everybody loves Touda, dare you not? Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch‘s forthright musical drama certainly doesn’t permit much room for dissent. From first gilded frame to last, the film is besotted with its eponymous heroine, a fiery small-town singer aspiring to the status of ‘Sheikhat’ — a revered class of diva versed in the poetic traditions of historical Aita music. With scene after scene conceived to emphasize Touda’s strength of character and depth of talent, it’s just as well star Nisrin Erradi is sufficiently magnetic not to buckle under the weight of the film’s devotion to her.

As a dramatic construction, however, Touda is more fabulous than she is intrinsically fascinating, characterized predominantly by determined ambition and glittering, show-must-go-on resolve. Ayouch’s script, written in collaboration with his wife and fellow filmmaker Maryam Touzani (“The Blue Caftan”), showcases these virtues via a somewhat one-dimensional narrative of challenge, triumph, setback and renewal, with the patriarchy as her hulking adversary in all contexts. But the film holds back from showing us Touda’s soul in its chaotic, capricious entirety — her life as a single mother, in particular, is rather sketchily drawn — and remains most fixated on her in performance mode, where’s she’s fully in her power.

When Touda sings, in other words, the film does too. Ayouch’s previous film, the hip-hop-infused social drama “Casablanca Beats,” made clear his rather sentimental affinity for songcraft as a means of character expression. Working with a very different strand of Morocco’s rich musical tapestry, he brings that same sensibility to “Touda,” fashioning a series of electrifying song-and-dance sequences in which his heroine’s interior torment and exterior force of personality can reveal themselves in tandem. Doing her own singing with considerable power and emotional abandon, Erradi (an eye-catching presence in Touzani’s 2019 film “Adam”) conjures enough gale-force charisma on stage that we share Touda’s steely belief in her own star quality.

At the outset of the story, that’s pretty much all she’s got. Touda believes she’s an artist, but to the male punters at the bars and nightclubs where she performs, she’s at best a showgirl, at worst a body for their use and abuse. The opening sequence makes this point bluntly, as a gig at a remote rural venue turns sour: After her performance, she’s pursued into the darkness by a group of drunk revelers, who brutally gang-rape her. Touda is used to callous treatment at the hands of men. He -

r young deaf-mute son Yassine (Joud Chamihy) is the product of a toxic relationship, his father having long since split, while her conservative brother regards her, with spitting contempt, as a loose woman.

Uneducated and illiterate, Touda has limited opportunities to make her own way in the world, making her vocal talent not just a gift but a lifeline. Her distant dream is to flee her dingy backwater for the bright lights of Casablanca, where she can make her name as a top-drawer Sheikhat, making enough money to send Yassine to a special-needs school. (The boy’s disability feels more a pointed irony in the face of his mother’s musicality than a fully articulated story point.) But that’s a tall ladder to climb, so she grims and bears the scuzzy gigs she can get, accepting the cash tips tucked crudely in her cleavage — a performance environment that stands in stark contrast to the elevated spirituality of the folk music she performs.

When, eventually, she decides to strike out on her own in Casablanca, a small handful of benevolent elders aid her way: not just her unusually permissive parents, who agree to look after Yassine while she finds her feet, but a twinkly-eyed veteran violinist (El Moustafa Boutankite) who, struck by her talent, becomes her mentor in the art of Aita. If “Everybody Loves Touda” thus admits there’s no getting ahead in this world without any man’s assistance, it at least suggests there are stray good ones to be found.

The film’s momentum oddly stalls once its heroine reaches the city, while outsiders may find that the Aita tradition is more mythologized than it is clearly explained. Again, then, it’s Erradi’s indefatigable performance and the whirling energy of the musical staging to the rescue. Picking up on the gold-and-ruby tones of Touda’s stage wardrobe, Virginie Surdej’s limber camera slides and shimmies around her like a fully seduced audience member, culminating in an immersive, near-20-minute sequence shot following our heroine’s climactic performance at a high-rise, high-rolling Casablanca venue — a seemingly make-or-break moment that doesn’t go entirely to plan. In this scene, Touda’s dreams are simultaneously dashed and crystallized to her, though viewers may not entirely share in the poignancy of the moment: Like her baying audience, we just want the music to play on.

‘Everybody Loves Touda’ Review: Nabil Ayouch’s Feminist Musical Drama Only Really Sings When Its Leading Lady Does

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, May 3, 2024. In Cannes Film Festival — Special Screenings. Running time: 102 MIN.

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