The Unknown Saint: What Do You Believe In? (SIFF Review)
The Unknown Saint crafts a sparse yet cleverly absurd tale of greed, faith, and misfortune as an unlucky thief attempts to recover his loot from a holy site.
A beat-up green car staggers down an empty desert road and its driver, a hapless thief (Younes Bouab) anxiously exits as he spots a hill nearby. Grabbing a shovel and his stolen goods—a bag of cash, he runs to the top of the hill and buries the loot, covering it with rocks as an unmarked grave. Hearing approaching sirens, he tosses the shovel away and returns to the car, surrendering to the police. He’s quickly arrested, but the money is still hidden—and his to retrieve as soon as he’s released from prison.
After his release from prison a couple years later, the thief returns to the hill to grab the money. But instead of an inconspicuous hill in the desert he finds more than he expected—a small building with a sign reading “Mausoleum of the Unknown Saint” and visiting pilgrims praying at the site. Journeying into a nearby town, he spends the night at the “Hostel of the Unknown Saint” and learns that the unmarked grave he originally made was discovered on top of the hill and is believed to be a holy site with healing properties. He’s soon faced with more obstacles, including a guard (Abdelghani Kitab) and his dog, as well as other thieves trying to steal coins from the fountain at the site. The thief then recruits his former accomplice (Salah Ben Saleh), a criminal known as “the Brain” (a sarcastic prison nickname, unbeknownst to him), but their simple plan soon faces more complications. Will the thief be able to retrieve his stolen money or will this eccentric town thwart his criminal plans?
The feature debut of writer-director Alaa Eddine Aljem, The Unknown Saint (Le Miracle du Saint Inconnu) is much more complex than its modest premise lets on. On the surface it’s a story of criminal misfortune, but at its core it’s a story of faith and how each of its eccentric characters find meaning in their lives. The devoted mausoleum guard will stop at nothing to protect the mausoleum and his valuable guard dog. Hassan (Bouchaib Semmak) desperately wants to leave his humble desert life, while his father Brahim (Mohammed Nouaimane) is convinced that if he continues his prayers, rain will return to the land afflicted by drought. A doctor (Anas El Baz) arrives at the village, only to find a nurse (Hassan Ben Bdida) who prescribes all their patients with the same pills, and out of boredom, decide to play tricks on pilgrims to convince them of the divine powers of the “unknown saint.” “The Brain” casually floats ideas to the thief about murdering the guard or starting a fire in the village so they can steal the money, but draws the line at destroying a supposedly holy site.
Running 100 minutes, The Unknown Saint can’t always sustain itself and it doesn’t always hold your attention. It often feels repetitive and drags especially in the middle, and perhaps a shorter runtime or more contained screenplay would have kept this a more engaging watch. Regardless, it’s an admirable debut from Aljem, as he showcases a careful yet sly sense of humor as dry as its desert setting, injecting his characters with quietly amusing personalities, moral ambiguity, and hidden motives. Expansive wide shots of the desert, meticulously framed to establish a sense of scale, create a genuine sense of place and invite us inside a world of thievery, quackery, and the elusive search for something to believe in—money, an “unknown saint,” or whatever that may be.
The Unknown Saint premiered at the 47th Seattle International Film Festival on April 8-18, 2021.