Thursday, October 22, 2009

Albou’s Wedding Song

He is the one Axis ally conveniently forgotten in recent years. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem incited attacks on Mid East Jewry, propagandized for the Germans, and even recruited volunteers for special Islamic Waffen-SS units. Thanks to his efforts, life becomes quite precarious for Tunisia’s Jewish citizens in Karin Albou’s The Wedding Song (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

Friends since childhood, the Jewish Myriam and the Muslim Nour, are interested in love, not war. However, war finds the young women anyway in 1942 Tunisia, thanks to periodic Allied bombings. Unfortunately, in the short run these make life more difficult for the Jews of Tunis. As part of its strategy to secure Arabic support, the occupying National Socialist soldiers demand reparation payments from Tunisian Jews, which Myriam’s mother cannot afford.

In a twist of fate, the war becomes the catalyst for each woman’s very different marriage. Despite her protests, Myriam’s mother arranges her marriage to Raoul, a wealthy doctor many years her senior, in exchange for the money demanded of them by the National Socialists. Conversely, Nour is happily betrothed to her cousin Khaled, but her father has withheld his final consent until her unemployed fiancĂ© gets a job. This he achieves with the German occupying forces, assisting with the round-ups of Tunisian Jews.

As would be expected, the circumstances of the occupation put a strain on the young women’s friendship. Ripe for anti-Semitic propaganda, the Islamist Khaled forbids Nour from seeing Myriam. Of course, as the one who taught Nour to read Arabic, Khaled might also consider the educated Myriam a dangerous influence on his prospective wife, possibly encouraging her to think for herself.

Given its traditional Tunisian settings, the frankness of Song is quite surprising. At times, the film feels excessively intrusive, as when we see the rather difficult preparations Myriad undergoes for her wedding night. However, in other respects, Albou’s direction is quite sensitive, capturing some remarkable performances, particularly from Lizzie Brochere as Myriam and Simon Abkarian as the surprisingly complicated Raoul. The director’s perspective on the German forces is also quite effective. Seen as boots on the floor or ominous figures in the street, her camera refrains from direct eye contact, and thereby never humanizes them in any sense.

Song is an intimately human film, focusing squarely on the personal dramas of Myriam and Nour rather than the wider issues of war and ideology. Still, its depiction of occupied Tunis convincingly evokes the confusion and desperation of the time. Even though it concludes a bit abruptly, Song is a delicately crafted film that completely immerses viewers in a very specific time, place, and culture. Definitely recommended, it opens Friday (10/23) at the Quad.