Salem offers contemporary fantasy with a gorgeous young cast and a real flair for its setting. In his second feature film, director Jean-Bernard Marlin mixes gang wars, a love story à la Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the plagues of the Bible (!) into a dark fairy tale about guilt and punishment.
Imagine the banlieue thriller Athena that blew up on Netflix last year, but with a twist of fantasy!
In the fantasy film, the apocalypse is just around the corner
Salem is set in a place that couldn’t be further from the verdant pastures of the Shire and other fantastical locales: the northern quarters of Marseille.
Cobbled with high-rise blocks, this stretch of land draws the nation’s attention mostly for headlines about gang crime. In this respect, the setting is similar to that of the cinematic suburban uprising from Athena. Djibril and Camilla grow up in the north of Marseille. He comes from the Camoros, belongs to the Roma and their quarters war like Montagues and Capulets.
The teenagers are expecting a child together when he witnesses a murder. The dying boy puts a curse on the two quarters in agony like Thybalt in Shakespeare. And like Romeo, Djibril becomes a murderer himself. He is imprisoned, but the vision of the dead man does not let him go. Apocalyptic plagues will descend upon the high-rise blocks. His firm belief: only his supernaturally gifted daughter can save people. However, she has no interest in contacting him.
Salem combines Mileu feeling with clever shootouts
I had to dig deep to describe this story, which reads like the whiteboard after a sleepless 72-hour brainstorm (kind of like going to a Cannes festival) in a reasonably understandable way. Amazingly, Jean-Bernard Marlin (director of César-winner Scheherazade)’s film feels light-footed and self-assured beneath the jumble of ideas. We are led into this microcosm full of vigour, recognize its balance of power without much exposure and take the young people between the fronts to our hearts.
The This fantasy film is clearly based on reality, both in terms of the different ethnic groups, cultures and religions in the “hotspot areas” and the authentic staging of young love. It is carried by an extraordinarily credible cast that seems born for the camera. Above all, the charismatic Wallenn El Gharbaoui, who plays Djibril’s daughter Ali.
But there is no lack of show values either. A shootout comes up with classic, hard Western ideas, including blowing sheets that reveal the position of the perpetrator. Another is more like an execution and shocks by its casualness. Not to mention the fantasy burglaries that are not described in detail here.
At times the film strays from its own ideas and straightens out its script twists a bit too easily. What struck me about this film, however, was the visual flair with which Marlin went about his work, which seems fresh even decades after Hate and a year after Athena. Here’s a director who can do great things with the right stuff.
On the other hand, I was impressed by the courage to keep things simple. The Romeo and Juliet meets X-Men plot sounds overloaded, but Salem is told like a parable whose symbolically charged turns say more than dialogue could. It’s far from a perfect film. However, he impresses with an originality and irrepressible closeness to life that makes most of what you currently see in the fantasy genre pale in comparison.
Salem does not have a German start date yet.
Podcast from Cannes: How good are Indiana Jones 5 and Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon?
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I was a guest on the FILMSTARTS podcast on the screen love and talk to my colleague and Cannes roommate Christoph Petersen about Indiana Jones and the Wheel of Destiny, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon and Asteroid City by Wes Anderson. Listen up!