(Koch-Lorber) Hiyam Abbass, Makram J. Khoury, Clara Khoury, Ashraf Barhom, Eyad Sheety, Evelyne Kaplun, Julie-Anne Roth, Adnan Trabshi. Directed by Eran Ricklis.
The Druze are an ethnic group living in the Golan Heights, an area occupied by Israel but claimed by Syria. Their passports list their country of origin as “unaffiliated” although many think of themselves as Syrian. Their lives are a kind of grey area where they live in one world in which they are more or less at peace but their hearts yearn for another world entirely.
Mona (Clara Khoury) is a beautiful young Druze woman who is about to get married. This should be a happy occasion, but there are many reasons why the young woman appears sad and depressed. She is in an arranged marriage with a Syrian actor whom she has never met. In order to marry, she must immigrate to Syria with her new husband. Once she does that, she will not be allowed to return to Israel to see her family, potentially for the rest of her life.
Hammed (Makram Khoury and Clara’s real life father) is the family patriarch who has already been jailed by the Israelis for his pro-Syrian activism. Embittered by the experience, he plans to attend a protest march on the day of the wedding despite the ramifications that might have on his daughter’s big day. Recently paroled, he has been told that he won’t be allowed to the border area, a sensitive military zone, to see his daughter off.
He has rocky relationships with his sons. Marwan (Barhoum) is a slick salesman who travels frequently to Europe. He calls himself a businessman but offers only vague explanations as to what that business actually is. A serial womanizer, he allows his charm and rakish good looks to scam his way through life. Hattem (Sheety) hasn’t spoken with his father in eight years after moving to Russia and marrying a Russian doctor. Outcast by the village elders, Hattem has returned for his sister’s wedding hoping to repair the damage in the relationship with his family bringing his tow his somewhat nervous wife and a son named for his father.
Orchestrating most of this is Amal (Abbass), the older sister. Married to a conservative man who has a somewhat bronze age view of women, she is independent, smart and ambitious. Intending to attend college in Israel now that her daughter is nearly grown, she is meeting stiff resistance from her husband who is more afraid of what the village will think than what will make his wife happy.
The wedding party soon makes its way to the immigration officer at the border where Mona presents her passport for the journey to a new life. However a new stamp, new Israeli policies and stubborn Syrian military officers jeopardize the wedding, which could leave Mona in a no-man’s land; a bride without a groom, a woman without a country.
Director Ricklis presents a story simply told about a situation which is not uncommon in that part of the world. Taking no sides, he instead lets the richly drawn characters tell the tale. But despite the movie’s title, this is less Mona’s movie than it is Amal’s. She is the driving force of the story and Abbass plays her like a young Irene Pappas with a bit of Sophia Loren mixed in.
I’ve always been fond of movies that present a slice of life in a part of the world that we don’t get to see much of on the evening news or in major movies. There have been quite a few of those types of movies emerging from the Middle East lately; The Band’s Visit, Paradise Now and Rana’s Wedding are just a few of the better ones. Ricklis wisely doesn’t cast stones here; he presents the situation as a fact of life, and that suits the story better.
Makram Khoury plays Hammed as a smart but bitter man, one who loves his family but might love his cause just a little bit more. While this is Amal’s movie, his journey from the stiff-necked patriarch to loving father during the course of the film is equally as compelling. While Hammed’s family is plainly dysfunctional, it is also just as plainly tight-knit. They bicker, yes, but they also come to one another’s aid when the situation calls for it. These are smart, independent people, and I would love to get to know them just a little bit better.
Cinematographer Michael Weisweg does an outstanding job of framing compelling images, such as a beautiful bride walking slowly in a demilitarized zone past signs warning of land mines, and of the desolate but oddly beautiful landscape of the Golan Heights. It’s a beautiful movie to look at.
One of the things I loved about the movie is the ambiguous ending, although some might be frustrated by this. Like the situation itself, there are no easy solutions and things are only going to change when somebody decides to lay down their rage and suspicions and make peace. Until then, movies like The Syrian Bride are going to be all-too-common.
REASONS TO RENT: A slice of life set in a world we see very little of in the States. Strong performance by Abbass. Gorgeous cinematography capturing compelling images.
REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many characters in the family (such as the story of Amal’s daughter who is in love with a man her father disapproves of) that muddy up the plot. Ambiguous ending may frustrate some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some harsh language but otherwise nothing not suitable for entire families. Younger sorts might not understand the complex issues presented here.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming had to be done in two different Druze villages, one pro-Syrian the other pro-Israeli. Which village was filmed in that day depended on the political leaning of the scene. Since the Israeli government wouldn’t allow filming to take place at the actual border, a mock-up was constructed some miles away.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The commentary from director Riklis gives additional insight into the history of the conflict and how it affects those living in the region.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Avenue Montaigne