January 12, 2017
Wolf – the Netherlands, 2013
Jim Taihuttu’s film Wolf is about a Moroccan immigrant named Majib who defies conventional cinematic wisdom, at least until he doesn’t. He’s a thief, a leader, and a supportive brother, as well as a best friend and protective ex-boyfriend. He strives to be more than he is, yet lacks the discipline needed to truly pursue anything in particular, and so he dabs in everything, straddling the line between heroism and villainy and stumbling back and forth between the straight and narrow and the path to personal destruction. He’s a fascinating character, yet one that is extremely difficult to fully get behind – and this is a bit of a masterstroke.
I say that because all too often movies about morally complicated characters follow a familiar pattern. The characters start out as schmucks, lowlifes with few redeeming values, and slowly they discover a reason to turn their lives around, be that reason the love of a good woman or a passion for something artistic or athletic. By the end of the most of these films, the scoundrel we see as the film opens has completely faded, having blossomed into a person who bares little resemblance to his earlier self. Here, though, the troubled youth is consistently unable to shake his worst habits, and I never completely felt sure he would find any happiness in life.
Wolf follows Majib as he juggles a day job at a flower auction – a job he despises – and a late night habit of breaking and entering. In the middle of these activities, we see him visit Hamza (Nasrdin Dchar), a brother dying of cancer, give repeated warnings to his younger brother about what happens when you don’t make an effort to do well in school, and mediate when a good friend gets himself into trouble with a local drug dealer. I marveled at the many roads this character could go down, and it seemed to me that he was consistently just as likely to become a role model as he was to head his own crime syndicate.
Early on, we get a clue of Majib’s possible salvation, kickboxing, and yet his interest in the sport seems less the fulfillment of a dream than it does an impulse he simple acts on. Majib is drawn to violence, pulled – often unwittingly – by his emotions into situations that give him the opportunity to use his fists. Most surprisingly, kickboxing does nothing to lesson his involvement in other forms of violence and crime; in fact, at times it seems that the two go hand in hand, and we watch as his criminal success rises at the same time as his kickboxing potential.
Majib is played by Marwan Kenzari, an actor I had not heard of before, and I was amazed at the range of emotions that Kenzari gives the character. Throughout most of the film, he plays Majib as a man seemingly lost. He wears a look of slowly growing discontent and detachment, as if he is in danger of completely withdrawing from humanity. However, in other scenes, many of which involve Adil (Chemseddine Amar), his partner in crime and best friend, he appears jovial and full of life. When he is with his siblings, we see his serious and caring side. The questions, I suppose, is whether one of these people is the real Majib, or if Majib is as fractured as the film suggests.
For the first two-thirds of Wolf, the film challenges and confounds us, as our empathy for Majib ebbs and flows. The film’s final act is slightly less ambiguous. We can see where Majib is heading and the obstacles being placed in his path. In this way, the film is similar to films in which a criminal mutters those familiar words, “One more and I’m out.” While Majib doesn’t says this directly, viewers familiar with films such as The Town and Blow will recognize the pattern. There are even subtle nods to Othello, Gladiator (the one with Cuba Gooding Jr., not Russell Crowe) and The Set-Up. And there’s a scene that explains the film’s title that is moving, if not a tad bit unoriginal.
In the end, I was consistently interested in Majib’s story. I was moved by the conversations he shares with Hamza and riveted by the revelatory talks he has with a rich Turk named Hakan (Cahit Olmez), a man who is both entrepreneur and crook. Just as Mathieu Kassovit’s Hate does for Muslim youth in France, Wolf shines a light on the plight of immigrants in the Netherlands and paints an interesting picture of Dutch society. Majib’s circle of friends seem to be accepted up to a point, but there seems to always be someone somewhere willing to draw attention to someone’s ethnicity and to distinguish between us and them. This includes Majib himself. Writer-director Taihuttu, who gives the film a classic look by shooting it in glorious black and white, a la Raging Bull, gets great performances all around and demonstrates an awareness of the power of close-ups, which enables viewers to clearly see the range of emotion that each of the film’s characters are experiencing. We see their exuberance, their angst, and their hope. And in the film’s final, slightly unrealistic moments, we even get a glimmer of pride. It is a poignant reminder of just how much has been squandered, and it tears at the heartstrings. It should, too. Its predictability does little to diminish its power. (on DVD)
*Wolf is in Dutch, Arabic, French, Turkish, and English with English subtitles.