Over the years, Morocco’s burgeoning cinema has produced some enthralling movies, with the best Moroccan movies making it to several festivals such as the Cannes Film Festival.
In addition to giving Morocco a spot in the global cinematic spotlight, some of these movies made Moroccans give their country’s young film industry a chance—both by watching and supporting Moroccan artists driving and inspiring the still adolescent Moroccan industry.
The story of Moroccan-made movies, however, goes beyond the limited and limiting confines of exclusively “Moroccan” films. Because of its gorgeous and diverse landscape, the North African country has become a go-to destination for some of the most influential names in the cinematic universe. For decades the country has been home to countless Hollywood and international movie sets.
Among some of the most iconic Hollywood movies filmed in Morocco is “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962 by David Lean. Shot in the city of Ait Benhaddou Kasbah, one of the many sites of Morocco listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the movie has secured a prominent spot in the pantheon of visually gorgeous, great historical dramas.
Closer to our times are the movies “MUMMY” by Stephen Sommers in 1992, in the Moroccan Sahara, as well as the famous HBO series “Games of Thrones,” 2011.
While great acting and storytelling may be the most cited reasons for the successes of such movies, it is almost certain that they would not have been as universally admired and loved as if not for their uniquely captivating, almost succulent, sceneries. The common thread of all masterfully shot movies in Morocco is the irresistible splendor of the setting.
The growth of Moroccan cinema
After King Mohammed VI ascended the throne in 1999, and with his love for art and film, Morocco’s then struggling and sluggish cinema noticeably took off. As it received more investments and attention from the authorities, the Moroccan cultural landscape started showing promising signs of an industry that could flourish if sustainably supported.
While there still remains a long way to go, the industry has delivered on some of its promises in recent years. Among these is the Marrakech Film Festival, which is rapidly becoming one of the most significant events in the country and beyond, showcasing the top cinematic work from Morocco and across the globe.
Despite the ongoing debates about individual freedoms in Morocco, the recent, notable gains in freedom of speech remain one of the strengths of contemporary Moroccan cinema.
With an increasingly free public space, Moroccan artists often treat the country’s most salient social and political issues, including issues that have traditionally been considered — and still are, to a certain degree — as taboos. The result has been a proliferation of films addressing “controversial” societal themes to attract, entertain, and educate Moroccan viewers on the multiple facets of these social realities.
The film “Behind Closed Doors” is a case in point. With its affecting depiction of social issues like sexual harassment, the movie made a huge mark on the Moroccan cultural and political scenes in 2014. For many, one of the movie’s most perceptible impacts was the subsequent birth of a national movement that seeks change in Moroccan laws on questions of sexual harassment, and gendered violence and inequality in general.
Below are the best nine Moroccan movies of all time that are bound to give many Moroccans a wave of nostalgia and bring new watchers closer to Moroccan cinema.
Perhaps the first movie that crosses Moroccans’ mind when asked about the best Moroccan movies is the film “Casanegra” by Nour Eddine Lakhmari, and that is for a good reason. Casanegra was one of the few films that showcased the dark side of Casablanca and the reality of young locals’ lives that most Moroccans would rather not talk about.
The story is about two close friends Adil, played by Omar Lotfi, and Karim, played by Anas El-Baz. Both are in their twenties, live a life of squalor and unending challenges, and are motivated to make money and change their social status.
Karim struggles to provide for his family and retired father while secretly being in love with an upper-class rich girl. His love for the well-off girl gives him more reasons to improve his social standing. Adil, meanwhile, lives with his violent stepfather and dreams to immigrate to Sweden to escape his miserable situation and save his mother.
Adil and Karim’s desperation to better their situations led them in the hands of a drug dealer, Zrirek, acted by Mohammed Benbrahim. The movie goes on with dramatic and sad touching events that keep the viewers hooked throughout.
The Bitter Orange, “Al burtukala al mura”
“The Bitter Orange” is one of Moroccan cinema’s saddest and the best Moroccan movies. The story is about a girl named Souadia, acted by Houda Rihani, that tries to pick up bitter oranges from a tree.
In the course of her daily uncanny routine of gathering bitter oranges, she makes the acquaintance of a policeman, Amine, played by Youssef El Joundi, who ends up becoming the hero of her dreams and the love of her life.
The policeman later falls in love with Saoudia and as they both dream in their own world of a perfect married life and a fairy tale love story, the movie follows up several unfortunate events that lead to misunderstandings that dramatically change their fate.
The series of misfortunes cause Amine to move on and marry with another, leading Soadia to be in extreme shock and suffer from various health issues, including a mental illness that ruins her life.
“Marock” is one of the most controversial Moroccan movies. It is best known and most celebrated among Morocco’s youth, simply because it tells a love story of a young couple who decides to break free from the cultural and religious stigmas imposed on them by their families and society.
Directed by filmmaker Laila Marrakchi in 2005, Marock tackles a number of Moroccan society’s most entrenched taboo subjects, from sexual relationships to religious hypocrisy. It is, at its core, a story about a young girl from a rich Muslim family (Rhita), acted by Morjana Aaloui, that falls in love with a Jewish guy, Youri, portrayed by Matthieu Boujenah.
The film events continue showcasing the life of a rich young Moroccan girl ignoring her family’s religious lifestyle and living by her own standards and expectations. She meets with friends every night for drinks, cigarettes, and dancing all night at nightclubs.
This lifestyle of youthful defiance and freedom puts Youri on her way. She falls in love with him, and the movie then becomes the tale of a young couple’s fights — against, family, and society — to preserve their love.
Horses of God
“Horses of God” is a 2013 fictional film by one of Morocco’s leading filmmakers and producers, Nabil Ayouch. Under the title “Les Chevaux de Dieu”, the movie’s original French title, it tells a sad story of poverty, violence, and crime.
The film portrays the lives of those responsible for the horrific Casablanca bombings in 2006 that claimed forty-four lives. It is an exploration of how their extreme poverty leads them to embrace a life of petty criminals and eventually lures them into the unforgiving hands of a radical Islam group.
The movie plays a huge role in showcasing the vulnerable lives of Moroccan youth under difficult conditions in our society and how many desperate and hopeless young Moroccans have to live among peers to find a purpose and make sense of their intractable circumstances.
It speaks of how these desperate souls can easily be manipulated by leaders who promise them eternal paradise. Some of them are chosen for suicide operations, leading them to end their life and murder others as a solution for their struggle and suffering.
“Much Loved” or “Zin li fik” is another controversial film by Nabil Ayouch that depicts a serious social issue in the country. Only this time the movie gets banned from Moroccan screens, and its lead actress, Loubna Abidar, was beaten in the street and received several death threats that made her flee the country.
The film tells a story of female sex workers struggling to live through the exploitation by pimps in the prostitution market in Marrakech and the corruption of police to earn a living and support their families.
Much Loved was screened in the Directors Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, as well as the contemporary World Cinema section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
Because of its controversial topics, the film is hated by almost half the country while the other half believes it is one of the best Moroccan movies, and applauds the producers and actors for their courage in showcasing important aspects of Morocco’s reality.
Ali Zaoua, “The prince of the street”
“Ali Zaoua” is another great film from Nabil Ayouch’s early movies.
Released in 2000, the film tells the story of a group of street kids in Casablanca and their involvement with a gang lead by Dib (Said Taghmaoui). Leaving the gang causes the kids to lose their anchor friend Ali, who was thrown recklessly into a rock and instantly killed by Dib’s followers.
The tragedy leaves the boys feeling lost without their precious friend that dreamt to be a sailor, just like the childhood hero his mother (who worked as a prostitute) used to tell him about in a fairy tale story. As the film events proceeds, the rest of the boys make a decision to do their best to give Ali a proper funeral
This movie illustrates the struggles of young Moroccan street kids, as they live in a painful, poor, and abusive situation. It also shows how each kid is different from the other, as they try to escape their reality by sniffing glue, doing drugs, and dreaming of a better rich life.
Road to Kabul
Directed by Brahim Chkiri, with Said Bey, Younes Boab, Rafik Boubker, and Fatima Bouchain in Casablanca, “Road to Kabul” is one of the best Moroccan comedic movies.
The story is about Ali, acted by Youne Bouab, Hmida by Rafik Boubker, Mbarek by Amine Naji, and Masoud by Rabie Katie, who are young and unemployed in Casablanca and dream of living in the Netherlands and escaping their life of misery in Morocco.
The movie escalates quickly when Himda meets with an expert smuggler and convinces their friends to collect money for only one of them to immigrate to Holland. After months without hearing from Hmida, his friends discover that he is not in Holland and instead in Afghanistan.
The group of friends worriedly decide to go look for him and bring him back, setting the scene for a road to Kabul littered with countless hilarious interactions and encounters throughout the movie.
“Zero” is a 2012 film by “Casanegra” producer Nour Eddine Lakhmari. The movie gained a lot of popularity after the year it was made. Just like Casanegra, the film portrays serious social issues, such as corruption, prostitution, and addiction.
The film revolves around a corrupt cop called Amine Bartal and nicknamed Zero acted by Younes Bouab. It is a foray into the bad cop’s conflicting ideas, as well as his depression, alcoholism, and love life, as he uses a prostitute to catch her clients and take their money and share it with her.
Amine is also harassed by his superior in the police station. The superior is involved in even deeper corruption and in protecting a luxury hotel that takes young girls hostage for prostitution. Later a woman pleads with Amine to save her daughter from the prostitution network his superior is protecting.
“Classroom 8” would definitely feature on any Moroccans’ list of the greatest Moroccan movies, as it stands in the same pantheon as Marock, and Casanegra. The 2003 movie by Jamal Belmejdoub is one of the most nostalgic ones, mostly because of its dramatic and emotional characteristics.
Classroom 8 is about a young Moroccan teacher Ms. Leila (Fatima Khair) who transfers to a high school near her residence. This leads to profound troubles in her, with the source of the young teacher’s tribulations being two troublesome and rebellious students, Majid, acted by Rafik Boubker, and Miloud played by Aziz Hattab.
Moroccans love this movie because it reminds them of their own school experience where there always were the rebellious kids who tormented the teachers, interrupting them, and making fun of them in front of the whole class just to avoid studying.
It is, however, the movie’s detailed and deeply affecting emotional background story of each character that left indelible marks on many Moroccans. Pivotal in the film’s charming depiction of each character’s development is the troubled teacher’s heartfelt struggle to help her students even in their personal lives. The students eventually open up to her, making peace with the teacher. This captivating teacher-student relationship really gets to many Moroccans’ hearts, which makes them appreciate and remember this movie years after its release.
Morocco has come a long way to reach certain cinematic excellence, granted there is still a long way to go in making it to international fame.
Luckily, the country is blessed with many talented Moroccan filmmakers, producers, and actors that work hard to portray their artistic vision and make some of the best movies in the Arabic-speaking world.