The Damned Don’t Cry: Brilliant Moroccan melodrama offsets tragedy with beauty

Fyzal Boulifa’s muscular second feature is about a mother and son’s achingly human need for security and belonging

The Damned Don't Cry
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Director: Fyzal Boulifa
Cert: None
Genre: Melodrama
Starring: Abdellah El Hajjouji, Antoine Reinartz, Aicha Tebbae
Running Time: 1 hr 52 mins

Fyzal Boulifa has rightly become a festival favourite over the past decade with the Cannes prize-winning short The Curse, and his incendiary debut feature Lynn + Lucy, The Leceister-born filmmaker of Moroccan heritage journeys to Tangier for this vibrant, contemporary melodrama.

Cribbing a title from a similarly articulated Joan Crawford vehicle, The Damned Don’t Cry follows Selim (Adbellah El Hajjouji), a teenage boy who lives an uncertain existence with his mother, Fatima-Zahra (Aicha Tebbae), a Muslim variation on Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.

As the film opens, Fatima-Zahra leaves their shared mattress and heads off for a “job interview”, a euphemism, we soon learn, for sex work. She returns, humiliated, with a black eye and without her jewellery. The pair swiftly pack up and move on. She is treated with icy disdain during a brief stopover at her native village, where a secret about Selim’s parentage is revealed.

In Tangier, for a time, things are looking up for the nomadic pair. After an initially horrendous encounter with wealthy Parisian Sebastien (Antoine Reinartz), Selim is offered a job as a houseboy and gardener. His mother, meanwhile, meets a kindly bus driver who wants to take her as his second wife. She’ll take it.


“Only God stays the same,” she says, wearily: “I’ll be old and ugly soon.”

In common with Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, Boulifa’s script delicately handles the hypocrisies and conventions that have condemned the family unit to wander. Their fate and disgrace are bound up with religion, colonialism, sexism and homophobia, but these weightier matters are eclipsed by the mother and son’s achingly human need for security and belonging.

It’s a melodrama worthy of Douglas Sirk and classic 1950s Hollywood, yet it presents uniquely. The performances by first-time actors Aïcha Tebbae and Abdellah El Hajjouji are raw and electrifying. The tragedy is offset by the beautiful, exotic tableaux of Leos Carax’s regular cinematographer Caroline Champetier. A strikingly original score by Nadah El Shazly adds to the emotional sweep.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic