The film image of Casablanca
by Elisabetta Galeffi
The first time I went to Casablanca, it was in the grip of an irresistible impulse to see where they had shot Michael Curtiz’s film with Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Dooley Wilson “as Sam”: CASABLANCA.
I admit that I was in the vicinity of the Moroccan city and didn’t know yet, that the film had been shot near Los Angeles on a set in Burbank, the world’s media capital. Cinema buffs thrive on fantasy.
Old Casablanca, the Art Déco neighbourhood, with a rather unsavoury reputation at the time of my visit, around twenty years ago, had some splendid but dilapidated buildings which, in the evening, housed night clubs, semi-concealed places in dimly lit back streets, to be found after dark thanks to dated neon signs. The one over my hotel was an intermittent green light, illuminating first the word “night” and then the word “club”. I would place the blame for this stay on a famous French tourist guide, yet this was how I discovered the real atmosphere of the film: my hotel would still be a suitable place for smugglers and spies, like Rick’s Café at the time of Vichy’s filo-Nazi régime in the city. The only drawback was that you didn’t hear the notes of “As Time Goes By” and Sam’s splendid voice on entering the hall.
The charm of cinemas from the past
Just a few steps away, however, was the most elegant witness to the city’s colonial past, the “Cinéma Rialto”, which offered a stage for the great artists of the time, such as Joséphine Baker. A place where Churchill and the American allies, too, would have spent a few hours of leisure during the historical conference in Casablanca in 1943. It seems that this very meeting of politicians at the conclusion of the allied landings in North Africa, served as the necessary publicity to make the city of Casablanca known to the American public and help the film to become a theatrical success.
The Cinéma Rialto, with 1,350 seats and the interior restored without losing the charm of the old auditorium as I saw it, has been closed since a year and is now for sale. I can recognize it in the two large photos on show in the photographic exhibition organized by the photographer François Beaurain, in Marrakech, in the Guéliz neighbourhood, in rue Tariq Bnou Ziad.
The exhibition brings together at least 30 photographs of cinemas in Morocco.
After its closure and a tour in the main towns of the country (Rabat, Casablanca, Fès, and Agadir) it remains documented in the book of photographs bearing the same title “Cinémas du Maroc”.
The author of these images toured the whole country in search of the cinemas that existed before the advent of the multiplex, discovering that those in Morocco were very beautiful and their exotic charm remained intact, although many, unlike the Cinéma Rialto, are in a state of extreme dilapidation.
According to the figures released by the Centre Cinématographique Marocain, there has been a sharp drop in the number of cinemas operating in Morocco. Only a few years ago, at the end of 2003, 160 screens were in operation, whilst today only half of them.
The Moroccan society of the big cities, which inherited its passion for the cinema from the French colonialists, loved the big screen. The multiplexes, which arrived here, too, are no longer being built due to lack of audiences. Another piece of information necessary for grasping the crisis of cinemas in Morocco is that the latter only exist in big cities now, such as Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangiers. Nevertheless, the old cinemas here, as Beaurain’s photos demonstrate, have not been converted into restaurants or chain stores, as has frequently happened in Europe, but have continued to conserve the splendour of their times.
Dating from 1952 and designed by the architect Georges Peynet, designer of famous Parisian theatres, is the Cinéma Colisée, again in Guéliz, Marrakech: this is a theatre housed in an apartment building. A special place indeed: cinema at home, at least for some people, and still operating.
François Beaurain’s photos bear witness to the nostalgia for what movie theatres represented in the lifestyle of the 1900s, but not only. They have also been taken in the hope that these very special places will not disappear and that, like the cinema in general, will be born anew and crowded with spectators. In the preface to his book, the photographer expresses his hope that the movie theatres “will emerge from the darkness that has fallen on them”. The cinema, the seventh art, the art of the modern age, was born in these places and thanks to them saw its audiences grow. The cinema is inextricably bound to them.
François Beaurain's warning cry for Morocco's movie theatres at the time of the pandemic