‘Midnight Orchestra’ harmonizes disparate themes

A scene from ‘Midnight Orchestra.’ Photo: Stefano Berca

By Larry Levin, Publisher/CEO

For those old enough (or curious enough) to have watched the classic ’70s “Saturday Night Live” sketch about Shimmer — “it’s a floor wax and a dessert topping!” — you’ll find no surprise in how the sweet “Midnight Orchestra” can be multiple things.

It’s a mystery, a buddy movie, a Jewish reminiscence, and more, but impressively, it works no matter through which lens you view it.

The film, directed by Jerome Cohen-Olivar, tracks the return to his Moroccan roots of Michael Abitbol (Avishay Benazra), the son of Botbol, a well-known popular musician who abruptly emigrated to Israel decades ago and took his son with him. In real life, the Botbol name was not only common in Jewish Morocco, but produced a family of well-known and poignant musicians like those portrayed in the film.

Michael has become a well-to-do American financial success story, whose prodigal musical talents as a child were stunted and left behind by an illness that leaves him wearing a hearing aid as an adult.

The opening, in which Abitbol is detained at the airport as he enters Morocco for the first time since childhood, sets the stage for the movie’s myriad tones. There’s a tease of intrigue as he doesn’t understand why he’s been pulled aside, until the airport security chief, who encountered the famous father Botbol the day before, hands Abitbol one of his father’s albums and with a wistful smile asks him to get an autograph. 

From there it’s on to meet his father, who has called Abitbol to Morocco for reasons unknown to the son. Clearly they’ve had a difficult relationship, having seen each other scant times in recent years and the turmoil apparently more than the average father-son angst. But after a brief reunion, his dad suffers a heart attack and Abitbol is left to determine why he’s back in Morocco.

Abitbol heads to the Jewish cemetery in the cab of the mercurial Ali (Aziz Dadas). He’s a Muslim  with no formal education who at first confounds Michael with his Jewish half-knowledge — instead of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, it’s Maurice who received the Ten Commanders. But slowly, somehow, Ali evolves into Abitbol’s prophetic guide as they careen around Casablanca.

It’s the core of their journey that so intrigues, as Abitbol determines to find the members of his father’s band. In the course of that effort, he and Ali encounter the ex-musicians whose lives were torn apart and thrown into various fingers of existence — a beggar, a pimp (and his somewhat loyal prostitute of a ladyfriend), an asylum resident — by Botbol’s sudden and inexplicable departure from Morocco. Their fond remembrances of young Mika, Abitbol’s childhood nickname, are juxtaposed against their contempt for the father’s ruination of their lives.

We ultimately discover, through flashbacks that hone Abitbol’s memories, the true reason for Botbol’s exodus, which, while while occurring at the time of the Yom Kippur War, had a much more personal underbelly to it.  And the  realizations serve as a catharsis for not only Abitbol and the band members but, rather surprisingly, for Ali, who along the way saves Michael’s life both spiritually and literally and newly appreciates his own life worth.

There’s no shortage of mild amusements in “Midnight Orchestra.”  From the Jewish funeral arrangers who spew George Constanza-like explanations for loss and the cost of arrangements, to the rabbis who quote Torah about as accurately as Tevye, the plot finds enough chortling sidetracks to provide ample smiles.

But the movie’s depth belongs to Ali, Abitbol and the musicians.  As Michael, Benazra effects myriad emotions with merely a lip turn, while Dadas renders Ali just short of a caricature; their contrasts, camaraderie and developing friendship work extremely well. 

Cohen-Olivar has produced a little gem of a film, that was honored at the Montreal World Film Festival last year.  It’s one that can make you smile one moment and verklempt the next, without being way too syrupy or melancholy at either end. That’s a trick far too few filmmakers can accomplish.