When MGM released this Israeli movie musical in the United States in 1974, it was dismissed as a derivative film that unsuccesfully blended the rock musical with West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof. It is true that Kazablan suffers from an uneven tone and a lack of strong central story but it works better as a mood piece or social travelogue than a linear-constructed/ plot-driven piece. The director's tendency to wander almost randomly to the various characters, spectacular Israeli locations and secondary storylines contributes to the confusion but ironically results in one of the most interesting aspect of the film.
The film opens with a fisherman playing an Everyman narrator introducing the villagers of our story, in a very similar way that Tevye the milkman opened in Fiddler on the Roof. Then we focus on Kazablan a Sephardic Jew from Morocco and an army veteran turned gang leader in the Israeli port of Jaffa who falls in love with Rachel, a young woman from a different social class and a Ashkenazi Jew. The relationship scandalizes the neighbors and infuriates Yanush, a middle-aged shoe store owner who wants Rachel for himself.
In the early part of the film there's a musical number titled “We Are All Jews” reminiscent of the "Tradition" number from Fiddler on the Roof that celebrates the diversity of Israeli Jews but not without pointing out that where there is diversity there is also discrimination. This is in fact the central conflict of the movie which involves the differences between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews.
This film was directed with a good sense of pacing, imaginative visual style and unusual sensitivity by schlockmeister Menahem Golan. In fact, this is one of the best films he has ever directed himself. The songs by Dov Seltzer and Dan Almagor are catchy and at times even memorable; the highlights being Kazablan’s opening number “Man of Respect”, the big production number “Democracy” , "Hey What's Up?" in which Kazablan's gang perform an "Officer Krupkee"-like kind of number and the beautiful Brith Milah Pageant finale.
The gigantic production numbers and energetic choreography involving hundreds of dancers are mildly inspired and take advantage of the spectacular locations for maximum effect but at times appear repetitive. The minimal plot is serviceable but lacking focus. The acting is functional, but the characters are nearly all background to the spectacular Israeli locations which almost become the real star of the film. The only exception is the Israeli singer and actor Yaharom Gaon who plays the title role with gusto and has a spectacular singing voice. The female lead, Efrat Lavi is beautiful but has a very weak singing voice and minimal acting skills. Her solo at the end of the film is quite an embarasment and should have been kept in the editing room.
Two versions were filmed: one in Hebrew, the other in English and the film was nominated in 1974 for two Golden Globe Awards, for Best Foreign Film and for Best Song "Rosa, Rosa".
Kazablan is a decent film that only aims at entertaining. It is also an unusually better than average Menahem Golan exercise and that alone is worth the price of admission. See it with no expectations and you will have a good time. Go expecting a landmark musical and you will curse me like a good Jewish mamma.
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