The groundbreaking Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane is the dynamic subject of this captivating, one-of-a-kind documentary by Ahmed El Maanouni, who filmed the four musicians during a series of electrifying live performances in Tunisia, Morocco, and France; on the streets of Casablanca; and in intimate conversations. Storytellers through song and traditional instruments, and with connections to political theater, the band became a local phenomenon and an international sensation, thanks to its rebellious lyrics and sublime, fully acoustic sound, which draws on Berber rhythms, Malhun sung poetry, and Gnawa dances. Both a concert movie and a free-form audiovisual experiment, bolstered by images of the band’s rapt audience, Trances is pure cinematic poetry.
Previously released in Criterion’s first World Cinema Project box set, Ahmed El Maanouni’s Trances now receives its own individual edition (on a dual-layer disc) and is yet again presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced the same 2K restoration used for the box set’s presentation. It was scanned from the 16mm original camera negative.
Despite the restoration now being about 14 years old it still holds up incredibly well. Some archival material, looking to come from a mix of 8mm, 16mm, and video sources, have their issues but the footage shot exclusively for the film (a mix of interviews, concert footage and I guess what one could call reenactments) has been painstakingly cleaned up and I don’t recall anything of note remaining. The film’s colours lean warmer but aren’t what I would call excessively yellow; blues still come through and actually look blue, not cyan, and whites look like a warm white. Saturation overall is pleasing. Black levels are deep and do look strong, despite the limitations in lighting during some scenes. Range isn't anything special but shadow detail still comes through.
The digital presentation is very good, rendering the grain incredibly well. As to how it compares to the old presentation I can’t say there’s much of a difference on-screen, the old presentation looking pretty good itself. Even comparing screen captures from both (again, a process I’m not too big on) didn’t show any huge differences. I was a little surprised by this as Criterion has given the film more room to breathe on this disc compared to the old one, the film in the box set sharing its disc with The Housemaid. The file for the film there was around 18GB in size while the file on here is around 26GB in size, hence the requirement for a dual-layer disc. A more thorough, frame-by-frame analysis may yield better results, but just comparing a few scenes between the two discs on a television screen didn’t show any variance.
As it is, the presentation is still good and it was one of the more pleasant surprises in the original set. But I didn’t detect any difference between the two presentations, good or bad.
The film yet again comes with a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. The concert footage can get a bit edgy in places but on the whole the soundtrack can be incredibly dynamic. Fidelity overall is also good, even if some of the non-concert audio can sound a little one note. Some background noise is present but it’s expected. Nothing along the lines of clicks or pops ever show up.
With this edition and the solo one for Touki bouki it appears Criterion is going to be breaking up their World Cinema Project box sets, at least some of the more notable titles. This of course adds the potential for more supplementary material, which we got to see with Touki bouki. Sadly, Criterion doesn't add anything new for Trances, simply porting over the features specific to the film from the box set. There is a 2-minute introduction by The Film Foundation's founder, Martin Scorsese, the filmmaker going over the film’s restoration (the first film to be restored in the project) and explains what grabbed him about it. A bit meatier is the 18-minute On "Trances," featuring (along with a narrator) what appear to be archival interviews with Scorsese, musician Omar Sayed, producer Izza Genini, and director Ahmed El Maanouni. Despite its short running time it offers an immersive deep dive into the film's production and its subject matter, from details around the director's intentions to more context around the band itself. Scorsese also mentions again how he came across the film initially and what attracted him to it.
Though the documentary is good, as is the essay around the film written by film scholar Sally Shafto (which appears to be the same one found in the booklet of the box set edition), we barely get 20-minutes' worth of material here, making the edition feel a bit overpriced at $39.95.
Though I see why the film is getting its own edition, Criterion disappointingly doesn't upgrade things at all, delivering what appears to be the same presentation with barely 20-minutes' worth of supplements, making this feel incredibly over-priced. It's a film and release still worth checking out, but I'd point everyone to the first World Cinema Project box set since it's a better deal with five other films.