Englishman Thomas Fowler and his Vietnamese mistress in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American
have a distressingly natural relationship against the background of the very active (but dying) days of direct European colonialism in Asia. Transplanted to Morocco and swapping English for French, Vietnamese for Moroccan, Raja
at first glance could be dramatizing the never-seen romance between the two which is left out of Greene’s book, taking place roughly fifty years later. While neither an allegory of an older imperialism nor a topical political statement, fifty years can still shift relationships dramatically and as the film proceeds it is clear the power of Europeans of yesteryear, while not vanquished, has changed significantly. Raja
is deceptive in its low-pressure simplicity; for writer/director Jacques Doillon fifty years of changing definitions and applications of imperialism results in a delicate, but important, ambivalence between subject and ruler.
The strength of the give-and-take romance between Fred (Pascal Greggory), a “Frenchie” presiding over a sprawling Moroccan villa, and nineteen year old local orphan Raja (Najat Benssalam) is that it never truly reveals the motivations of the two. Thankfully, the contemporary setting gives Raja more independence and more power in the mating dance, despite the potent element of ingrained subservience in her background. She is not only an orphan living in the home of another lower-class family, but she has turned to prostitution in her past and actively surrenders her finances to a jobless Moroccan, Youssef (Hassan Khissal), in another of Raja’s ambiguous relationships.
Raja is hired along with a number of other girls to tend the gardens of Fred’s villa, and the owner, who seems to no occupation, no wife, and have nothing better to do than read, putter around the grounds and engage in slyly superior banter with the local help, quickly has eyes for the young woman. Actress Najat Benssalam’s beauty is understated despite her striking face and at the start it is curious why Fred quickly craves for this particular girl when, as many characters in the film point out, there are an endless parade of gold-digging women in Morocco vying for the patronage of an European. Safe in their homes away from the isolated French mansion, Raja and her girlfriends are quick to play with fantasies of a profitable marriage between herself and the Frenchie, and it is Raja
’s coy and inconclusive oscillation between fiscal motivations and those of love that sparks the dynamic between Raja and the middle-aged Fred.
Fred has other Moroccan women he is fond of, Zineb (Zineb Ouchita) and Oum El Aid (Oum El Aid Ait Youss), two married and elderly women who cook and clean for the man, as well as take on the affectionate but slightly condescended roles of surrogate mothers and advisors. Fred’s self-important confessions and sprightly philosophical discussions with them spell out his feelings for Raja as pure desire, the result of an aging body but young libido. Similarly, when Raja is hired as permanent cleaner at the villa she gives Fred a gracious kiss for a playful fist of cash, and later rebuts his serious advances while continually asking for gifts from around the house.
The continued game plays out like a lively one of chess, with expectations and counter-expectations, always trying to guess to other’s true motive. And always lurking in the background is the social and political history which informs the mindsets of the two players-why Fred sometimes thinks he can buy Raja; why Raja sometimes thinks she should milk the Frenchman; and why neither are sure exactly how they feel for each other. While Doillon never solves the mysterious relationship between Raja and Fred, their almost tactical playfulness is smartly shot and elegantly told. The fun of the movie is the game between the two, who each seem hesitant to define its result as a flight of fancy or a meaningful possibility. Raja
is especially notable for Benssalam’s radiant performance and her seeming ordinariness, which reveals rich beauty, speaks well for the humble insight of the film as a whole.