Dir. Mohamed Ben Attia. Tunisia / Belgium / France. 2016. 88 mins.
A young man is caught between the expectations of his overbearing family and the possibilities of a love affair with a woman who values her freedom and expects him to do the same. This debut feature, which was executive produced by the Dardenne brothers and shares the compassionate naturalism of their approach, takes a small-scale domestic drama and turns it into an allegory for contemporary Tunisia, a country caught between tradition and modernity.
The performances from the leads, in particular Majd Mastoura as the browbeaten Hedi, are strong
The Dardennes stamp of approval will act as a letter of introduction for this intimate, low-key drama and healthy festival interest seems likely. Theatrical prospects will likewise be oiled by the Dardennes name, although this picture is too gentle to generate the passionate audience response and word of mouth required for an arthouse break-out hit.
The performances from the leads, in particular Majd Mastoura as the browbeaten Hedi, are strong. Captured by spry hand-held camera, Mastoura negotiates a bold arc. He initially seems a rather inert presence: a sulky, love-smothered man-child. But by the end, after a cathartic meltdown, we see a man about to take control of his destiny, whatever it might be.
Playing Hedi’s wonderfully toxic mother, Sabah Bouzouita also merits praise. She dispenses imperious affection to her son and beams a cloying, artificially sweetened smile in public. In contrast, Rim’s (Rym Ben Messaoud) laugh is generous and uninhibited. An entertainer at the hotel where Hedi stays during a business trip, Rim is warm and unaffected. After an inelegant first encounter – he lies to her and then clumsily confesses the deception – Hedi and Rim stumble into a relationship almost without thinking. The problem is that it is the week before his arranged marriage and even as he is falling in love with Rim, he is fielding dutifully flirtatious text messages from his fiancee.
Writer/director Mohamed Ben Attia fills in the socio-political backdrop with a light touch, allowing the love story and Hedi’s personal journey to take centre stage. In fact, apart from a brief reference to the 2013 protests and the statement, from Hedi’s boss at a car company, that ‘the country is in crisis’, it sometimes feels as though Hedi, blindly following his pre-ordained destiny, exists in a bubble.
Attia’s understated approach extends to the use of music. The score is minimal – a discordant piano motif introduces us to Hedi at the film’s opening; at the end, the score is more melodic if minor in key. But music is crucial in Hedi’s journey – the synthetic hotel musack, the forced jollity of Rim’s stage show contrasts with the film’s most potent scene – a joyful local celebration filled with drums and dancing. It’s the moment when Hedi – the character and the film – finally comes alive.
Production company: Nomadis Images, Les Films Du Fleuve
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Producer: Dora Bouchoucha Fourati
Screenplay: Mohamed Ben Attia
Cinematography: Frederic Noirhomme
Editors: Azza Chaabouni, Ghalya Lacroix, Hafedh Laaridhi
Production design: Mohamed Denguezli
Main cast: Majd Mastoura, Rym Ben Messaoud, Sabah Bouzouita, Omnia Ben Ghali, Hakim Boumessaoudi, Arwa Ben Smail