Dir. Tawfik Abu Wael.Israel-Palestine. 110mins.

A typical choice for Critics' Week at Cannes this year,Tawfik Abu Wael's first film is slow, elaborate and spare and, while itfunctions perfectly as a metaphor, will have trouble keeping its audience alertonce its symbols have been adequately deciphered.

A brave debut for the28-year-old director, an Arab-Israeli from Oum El Fahem (Mother of Coal inArabic), his grim portrayal of the dour patriarchal system responsible for thestagnation of the Arab world will not be appreciated by his co-nationaltraditionalists. His final hint that even a revolt is not likely to change itfor the better may well displease the younger set as well.

Working with a striking castof non-actors blessed with remarkable screen presence and effectively shot inwide screen, Thirst is most likely to travel extensively from onefestival to another during the coming year. But short of some serious trimming,sales agents Pierre Menahem, formerly of Celluloid Dreams, and Momento! may havea tougher time with regular, paying audiences.

Yet despite the shortcomingsof his first film, Abu Wael is definitely worth watching. First there is hisjudicious choice of cast, none of them professional, who are remarkablyexpressive, particularly Hussein Yassin Mahajne as the unbending father. Alsoof note is his visual flair, his use of locations, and most of all hiscourageous moral attitude.

Like a classic Greektragedy, the plot focuses on one family: Abu Shukri, his wife, their son andtwo daughters, who have been living for the last 10 years in a disaffectedhouse on the outskirts of town, producing and selling charcoal for theirliving.

The son's attempts to escapehis father vigilant supervision and attend school are usually defeated by theparent who thinks learning is superfluous, while the women's role is subalternin every respect, silent witnesses allowed very little say in anything thathappens. A shameful secret hangs over the entire family that caused them toleave town and never go back again.

When the father decides toinvest all their money in a pipeline that will provide their home with runningwater, everyone protests, but he still goes ahead and does so anyway. In doingso he ignites a muted rebellion in the rest of the long-suffering family,doomed by his despotic rule to be cut off from the rest of the world, to carrythe guilt of crimes they have not committed and accept there is no choice offuture for them - only because Abu Shukri insists it is the case.

Evidently keen on painting acomprehensive portrait of Arab traditional family as he sees it, Abu Waelemphasises the particular type of relationship that exists between men andwomen, blaming its fatalistic acceptance of every single blow it is dealt as ifall happens by divine intervention. He also introduces understated hints ofpossible incest, suggesting at the end that if given the reins, the youngergeneration may not be much better than the older one.

The Israeli occupation isnever really explored but it is definitely there, more like a constantthreatening shadow, its heavy presence felt throughout. But nothing is reallysaid outright. Everything being left to that grey area between the real and themetaphysical, with the audience expected to give it its final reading. However,a tighter plot that would not rely entirely on symbolic motivations would havebeen a relief.

Some arguments might beraised concerning the film's nationality, since it was fully financed by anIsraeli Film Fund and the Israeli cables. Emotionally, however, there is nodoubt about the Palestinian contribution.

Prod cos: Zimaon Ltd. with the Yehoshua Rabinowicz Tel AvivArts Fund, Hotvision
Int'l sales:
Avi Kleinberger
Tawfik Abu Wael
Assaf Sudry
Galit Shaked-Shaul
Prod. des:
Boaz Katzenelson
Wissam Gibran
Main cast:
Hussein YassinMahajne, Amal Bweerat, Roba Blal, Jamila Abu Hussein, Ahmad Abed El Gani