“The Midnight Orchestra” (“L’orchestre de minuit”)
After leaving Morocco during racial tensions brought on by Israel’s Yom Kippur war, Michael Abitbol (Avishay Benazra), the son of a once famous Jewish musician travels to his home country to bury his father. As he meets the members of the band, his life unexpectedly transforms.
Abitbol returns to his childhood home in Casablanca to be reunited with his elderly father: legendary bandleader and local hero Marcel Botbol, from whom he has been estranged. Botbol is returning there himself for the first time since leaving his native city and adoring fans for Israel in 1973. No sooner do they meet again when tragedy strikes and the son must engage with officials of the local Jewish community to bury his father. But first Michael must fulfill his father’s last wish— he must reunite the band and this becomes an overwhelming desire to do so for one last gig.
We see the power that Casablanca exerts on the imagination. Both Jews and Muslims have been shaped by the city’s magic. Michael left Israel for America and became a successful Wall Street speculator who hopes to repair the fractured relationship he has with his father, Marcel, a famous Moroccan Jewish musician, who has also returned to the city after many years abroad.
Their return home, their universal story of return and remembrance, is at the heart of the film. For 2,000 years Jews have gone to Morocco, first as refugees from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and later as victims of Christian and Muslim persecution. Life there was not always easy, and the relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors have had ups and downs. But by the 20th century Moroccan Jews had become an integral part of the culture of the country.
The funeral of Marcel helps bring together the members of his old band in “The Midnight Orchestra.” The quest to find the band members is both comical and suspenseful and for Michael a bittersweet nostalgia trip too. His childhood around the band and its members is beautifully evoked by sepia tinted footage of the musicians in their prime. Michael sees the little ghost of his younger self too, haunting the places where he played as a boy.
For the audience the film is a look into the past and present of a Jewish community little known outside Morocco and into the now cordial relationship it has with the country’s Muslim majority. This is a poignant about regret and relationships, memory and getting old.
“Music is what brings them together,” director Jerome Cohen-Olivar has said, “but that’s really just a metaphor for a people who have been deprived of so much.”