Fyzal Boulifa swaps British suburbia for the streets of Morocco in his rich but surprisingly tepid sophomore feature, The Damned Don’t Cry.
Lynn + Lucy (2019) was a ferocious bombshell of a film, a brave commentary on both British society and human nature. Three years after this superb debut, director/writer Fyzal Boulifa is back at the helm with his follow-up, The Damned Don’t Cry (Les Damnés ne pleurent pas), which unfortunately withers in comparison to his first. The film boasts an admirable complexity and a similarly angry underbelly, but it becomes hard to connect with the events onscreen due to a surprising lack of dramatic heft. It is by no means a dud for Boulifa – and with the standards so high after Lynn + Lucy, the pressure would always be on to deliver a worthy follow-up – but when it cuts to black and the credits roll, the end result is a certain level of confoundment.
Boulifa was born in Leicester in 1985 to Moroccan-born parents, and his connection to The Damned Don’t Cry is clearly highly personal, aiding him in conjuring up a vivid world for us. His heritage allows him to analyse it through an informed lens, which makes for an interesting and dense piece of work. In this cruel, cutthroat world of The Damned Don’t Cry, where abuse, discrimination and victim-blaming are rife, Fatima-Zahra (Aicha Tebbae) and her teenage son Selim (Abdellah El Hajjouji) move from place to place in Morocco. Selim’s father isn’t dead as Fatima-Zahra tells people, but in fact conceived Selim when raping Fatima-Zahra.
The father’s shadow of cruelty is reflected back in most of the onscreen world, quashing the fleeting moments of happiness for both Fatima-Zahra and Selim; any notions of self-worth or strong identity also become secondary to simply surviving. For both of them, their drifting journey is an intense search for belonging, for the deep human desire to feel wanted. Their consistent mistreatment and misfortunes make for a tough watch, but it needs to be when dealing with themes such as colonialism, sexism, classism and homophobia. The Damned Don’t Cry is thematically rich but frustratingly never quite clicks into place.
Boulifa’s pared-back, patient direction worked wonders for Lynn + Lucy, grounding the film in a tough, straightforward realism, but in The Damned Don’t Cry, his style noticeably strips scenes of energy. A dramatic inertia and lack of drive results in the weighty themes becoming lost. Still, the two central performances from Tebbae and El Hajjouji are engaging and powerful. Boulifa is considered in the way that he shoots both actors, lingering on their faces and allowing subtle expressions and unspoken words to float in empty spaces, whilst the world created around them is captured in exquisite detail. Their volatile relationship is a driving force to The Damned Don’t Cry, their mother-son bond always fragile. It is a deeply layered relationship to an equally deeply layered film.
A jarring original score by Nadah El Shazly (Mapping Lessons) further contributes to a piece of cinema that becomes increasingly insipid to watch. Despite this lethargy, Boulifa’s subtlety gives The Damned Don’t Cry a welcome ambiguity, and he never simplifies the plight of our two protagonists. It allows their lives to play out in realistically unpredictable ways, both independently and together. Even with these shortcomings, Boulifa’s film still contains his strong, passionate voice; it shines through and stands out as something singular, intelligent and vital.
The Damned Don’t Cry premiered at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival on October 11, 2022. Read our list of films to watch at the London Film Festival this year.