There’s no better place for dry humour than the desert. Couldn’t resist.
Neither could The Unknown Saint, skewering such virtues as religion, piety and perseverance in this far-flung Moroccan corner.
Burying his loot atop a hill, ‘The Thief,’ captured by police, later returns from prison to find a shrine to an ‘unknown saint’ has been erected in what he had evidently made to look like a grave. Settling into the very small town and the lives of those tending to the site, together with accomplice ‘The Brain’ plotting abounds to reclaim their treasure.
Handling this setup with supremely efficient storytelling as that described above transpires in a matter of minutes, thus begins the hilarious heist portion of the film as the pair, constantly thwarted, attempt to reclaim what they stole. What may sound like the plot of forgettable 90’s comedy Blue Streak is here handled with greater aplomb and humour; only furthered by the hysterically lo-fi shrine, protecting that sought with four thin walls, a door and maybe a couple of pilgrims.
That which soon turns into a Pinky and the Brain-esque series of escalating events as things start to spiral, the religious significance of the site, despite the pair knowing full well the plot has no actual saintly basis, drolly begin to factor into their calculations and whether to raid the ‘grave’ at all. Examining the role faith plays in the lives of believers and sceptics alike through what easily could have been a mocking, cynical approach to religion, The Unknown Saint’s focus is never so much on the legitimacy of faith but examples of how sincere rather than greed-ridden approaches to piety and relations with others can lead to fortune and a fulfilling life.
Likewise, while depicting more than one essentially pathetic character, the film, importantly, does not ridicule them. Playing the situation rather than the individuals for laughs, that it satirises is not treated with overwhelming contempt, underlining the constructive role religion and belief can play regardless of its ‘legitimacy’ and the, well, less constructive role it may play when those feckless internalise it’s precepts in pursuit of irreligious ends.
Employing some excellent world-building on this small stage as we come to learn the dynamics of the whole village, the newly-established Doctor and his very memorable assistant emerge especially vivid in what is a very colourfully-rendered environment. Identifying the contents of the burial site a little more explicitly as things progress, The Unknown Saint could have done just as well if not better with a Pulp Fiction-style treatment of its McGuffin. The material value of the prize being evident in the readiness of the pair’s pursuit, such an approach could seamlessly have fed into the parable-driven nature of the narrative and likewise emphasised that abstract and universal (and necessarily relatable) in what could reasonably have remained nondescript.
A minor contention and moreover an observation than a criticism, in a Sydney Film Festival not absent dissections of faith The Unknown Saint might just have one of the best angles we could hope for.
The Unknown Saint screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival and will screen as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 7 at 11AM at the Forum Theatre and August 12 at 9:15PM at the Sofitel Melbourne