Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Khalid Lyamlahy reviews Arab Modernism as World Cinema

Peter LimbrickArab Modernism as World Cinema: The Films of Moumen Smihi. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. 302 pp.

Review by Khalid Lyamlahy

2 September 2020

The past two decades have seen a steadily increasing interest in North African cinema. Several works by scholars including Roy Armes, Michal F. O’Riley, Valérie K. Orlando, Florence Martin, Robert Lang, Suzanne Gauch, and others have explored the development of a postcolonial cinema in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, often in relation to political, social, and cultural debates in the region, both before and in the aftermath of the uprisings of 2011. While acknowledging the local roots of Maghrebian cinema, Peter Limbrick’s monograph extends this effort beyond national frameworks by examining the experience of Moumen Smihi, one of the most prominent contemporary Moroccan filmmakers, in relation to modernism and world cinema. The book, which astutely combines technical, thematic, and formal perspectives, aims to demonstrate that Smihi’s films embody “a rethinking of the relationships of cinema, culture, and modernity in the Arab world” (p. 2) and express a “yearning for a new Nahda” (p. 3) or an Arab reawakening. In doing so, Limbrick seeks not only to shed light on Arab cinematic modernism, which he describes as marginalized and insufficiently recognized at a global level, but also to expand the geographical and theoretical horizons under which Arab cinema is usually approached.

A cinephile from a young age in Tangier, his native town, Smihi was trained at l’Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris where he also attended the Cinémathèque française and was influenced by French structuralism, most notably through Roland Barthes’s seminars. The worldliness of Smihi’s work, Limbrick argues, was nurtured as much by his personal trajectory and wide-ranging interests as by his deep engagement with the visual, musical, and aural languages of cinema. As a result, his modernism, which he developed in both filmic and written forms, has constantly been in dialogue with global cinematic discourses.

Throughout the book, Limbrick’s methodological approach consists in highlighting the modernist and intertextual affiliations of Smihi’s films as conveyed in cinematic language and representation. While exploring various levels of (neo)realism with a particular attention to aestheticized images and to the presence of bodies in space, Smihi blurs the distinction between fiction film and documentary. In the same vein, his creative use of polysemic sound objects, diegetic music, radio broadcasts, and acousmatic voice-over serves to destabilize the relationship of sound and image through “an ongoing discourse about transmission and connectedness” (p. 85), rooted in Arab political and cultural life. Limbrick describes Smihi’s intertextuality as “worldly and multidirectional” (p. 108), building as much on Arab and Islamic sources (al-Jahiz, al-Maʿarrī, Taha Hussein) as on Western cinematic traditions (Orson Welles, Pasolini, Buñuel) and theories (Jean Rouch’s ciné-ethnography, Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète, Agnès Varda’s cinécriture). Arabo-Islamic philosophy and architecture, Maghrebian popular culture, and Arabic music and poetry are all areas of cinematic experimentation that enable Smihi to create a “vernacular modernism” (p. 128) through which local practices become enriched with foreign and global influences.

Smihi’s cinematic modernism, which Limbrick productively connects to the experiences of Egyptian, European, Asian and Latin American filmmakers, can also be traced in his treatment of religion and sexuality. Smihi’s films not only affirm Islamic tolerance but also illuminate the social function of religious and ritual practices, and includes references to local and global sacrilegious traditions without falling, according to Limbrick, in dogmatic or prescriptive discourses. Just as Smihi’s treatment of religion hints at “the possibilities of a secular modernity” (p. 167), his films deliver a radical critique of patriarchal structures and pinpoint the simultaneously excluding and empowering dimensions of gendered spatial divisions in both private and public spheres. Moreover, his multifaceted engagement with sexuality is attentive to the ways in which queer practices and “elements of sexual desire that are private, even perverse” (p. 208) could possibly promote the idea of pleasure and consequently contribute to a wider social and political liberation.

While Limbrick’s monograph offers a brilliant exercise of intertextual and transnational reading of North African cinema, his approach could perhaps have benefited from a deeper engagement with the work of other Moroccan filmmakers, some of whom (Afifi, Benlyazid, Bouanani) are frequently mentioned throughout the book. In fact, the question of what distinguishes Smihi’s experience from that of his fellows, who are equally familiar with modernist discourses and open to international influences, remains insufficiently addressed. In reading Smihi’s filmography primarily in relation to global sources and experiences, Limbrick often seems to downplay both the importance of its national grounding and the inner dynamics and environment of Moroccan cinema. This choice probably explains the author’s tendency, especially in the last two chapters, to read some cinematic themes and representations as unusual or subversive while they can be considered, in the Moroccan context, as widely accepted or rather problematic, respectively. As a result, the book develops an over-celebratory discourse that leaves no space to examine the potential shortcomings of Smihi’s cinema or to engage with his public and critical reception in Morocco and the Arab world. This could have impelled the author to evaluate the viability of the concept of “a new Nahda” in the North African context, and to further discuss the challenges facing Moroccan cinema, including the “obstacles in the domain of distribution and exhibition” (p. 13) and the persistent “issues of visibility and circulation” (p. 14), which he rightly acknowledges in his introduction.

Despite these limitations, the author’s welcome and “unusual proposition” (p. 13) to explore the work of a single filmmaker in a transnational context is both original and fruitful. Weaving together close film analysis, studies of cinematic techniques, and scholarly engagement with a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary material, Limbrick offers an unprecedented window into Smihi’s “multifaceted and polyphonic” (p. 105) filmography. At the same time, he demonstrates that Arab film culture, when studied in its global ramifications and affinities, reveals an inner complexity that resists systematic and univocal readings, and invites to rethink Arab modernism as a dynamic and multidimensional concept.