Dir: Ridha Behi. Tunisia-France. 2002. 89mins.
One of the few really pleasant surprises at this year's Venice Film Festival, The Magic Box is a small but likeable Tunisian drama that recycles the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso theme without appearing derivative. It was snapped up by Norway's BV International after its out-of-competition world premiere on the Lido, and is expected to attract interest at MIFED next month. Although the film's lack of dramatic development will frustrate some audiences, the story is sufficiently engaging, and sufficiently engaged - as a reflection on various types of culture clash - to escape the Paradiso schmaltz trap. This $2.5m production should turn out to be that rare thing: a North African film that garners international arthouse distribution across a raft of territories.
The story centres on Raouf (Kechiche), a filmmaker from - as the script has it - 'the south' (in this case, Tunisia), who has been asked by a 'northern' (in this case, French) production company to make a film about his childhood love of the movies. In between working on the script, the director - a product of Tunisia's educated, well-travelled, French-speaking elite - argues with his French wife (Basler). Despite having married for love, she but has never accepted, nor been accepted by, her husband's native land, and who has turned to drink as a means of escape. These scenes of present-day cross-cultural angst are spliced in with the long flashbacks to Raouf's childhood in late 1950s Kairouan that provide the film's most rewarding moments.
Here too there is a clash, but of another kind: between the rigid Islamic moralism of the child's father (Bouchnak) and the daringly Western attitudes of his rakish maternal uncle, Mansour (Rostom).
Mansour works as a travelling projectionist, toting sentimental Egyptian romances and low-budget Hollywood actioners around the countryside in an orange Peugeot van. Raouf is entranced both by the films and the lifestyle, and whenever his uncle is in town - and he can give his father the slip - he spends his time riding in the van, watching the films, and visiting uncle Mansour in the brothel where he lives when he's not on the road.
That's about it for plot. It would be a slight enough exercise were it not for the warmth, good humour and utterly convincing sense of place and time contained in these child's-view scenes, which are glowingly shot by Yourgos Arvanitis, a longtime collaborator of Theo Angelopoulos. Some border on the surreal: the man who plunges into the Turkish bath, never to emerge; or the vignette where a group of kids, challenging each other to recite speeches by Tunisia's founder-president, Habib Bourguiba, are interrupted by the appearance of Zorro.
Hichem Rostom hits just the right note of seedy dignity as Mansour, and Medhi Rebii is delicious as the serious, mischievous young Raouf. But Behi has problems tying the film up; and in the end, although it has its contrapuntal uses, it's difficult not to see the film's contemporary frame as a distraction from the flashbacks, which have enough dramatic energy to fill 90 minutes and more.
Prod cos: Alya Films, Atlas Entertainment
Int'l sales: BV International Pictures
Prods: Malik Bencheghib, Behi
Cinematography: Yourgos Arvanitis
Prod des: Taoufik Behi
Ed: France Duez
Music: Lofti Bouchnak
Main cast: Abdelatif Kechiche, Marianne Basler, Medhi Rebii, Hichem Rostom, Lotfi Bouchnak