SIFF: The Gentle Irony of a holy place that is anything but in The Unknown Saint

So, you’re a thief and you’ve made a killing in gold. However, as life would have it, the cops are hot on your tail. You’re in the middle of nowhere and realize you’re going to face the music. Quick reasoning, you decide to hide your stash in a way that the cops will never find it — only you, when you get out.

The problem is, that while you do your time, when you get out, and go back to claim your stash… it’s not only not there/available, but there’s a monument that’s been erected over it.

The premise of Alaa Edit Aljem could not have been more ironic if you won the lottery the very same day you also got terrible news from the doctor. A film that delves into the gently absurd, The Unknown Saint posits an unlikely situation and the ramifications stemming from it like a blessing in disguise.


Several plot threads convene into a grand comic whole in which the Thief (Younes Bouab) finds himself returning to the scene of the crime only to find out that the place is now a place of worship and that he’s regarded as a scientist. Yes, you read that right, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Along the way there is the Brain (Salah Bensalah), the Thief’s accomplice, continually blunders his attempts at retrieving the loot. A sexy, handsome doctor (Anas El Baz) has come to be the village’s doctor only to find out that the village has no need for him (except for entertainment), and a farmer and his son pray for rain, and get a lot more than they bargained for.

I find it refreshing that movies like these exist. I really loved how the desert, and the shrine at its center, become an all-knowing character hiding precious treasure in lieu of a miracle, but also, and in spite of the irony, a source of riches beyond the material. This is a gentle comedy in the Ealing style that initially makes you root for the Thief but, as the story progresses, you feel more empathy for the poor deluded folk who live in ignorant bliss. I especially love the universality of its story: this could have very well been a comic Western with slight magical realist overtones. As it is, The Unknown Saint is a fable with a slight moral lesson dressed in the trappings of a crime caper and a clever, empathetic Ealing comedy. [A–]

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