Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis recognizes the cinematic potential in an absurd political situation–it’s easy for him, perhaps, because the country he lives in provides so much irrationality and insanity. His new downcast wedding film, “The Syrian Bride,” takes place on the matrimonial day of Mona (Clara Khoury), a young Druze woman who is about to marry a Syrian television star she has never met. For Mona, this meaningful day entails drastic consequences: once she crosses the border from Majdal Shams, the Druze village where she lives with her family, to her new life in Syria, she will never be able to come back. The happiest day of her life is also a distressing moment of separation. We soon realize, however, that it’s not only Mona who needs to face geographical and mental borders: The big ceremony attracts a massive family visit and introduces us to an Altmanesque rainbow of characters with different life stories of oppression and compromise.
Hammed (Makram Khoury, Clara Khoury’s real-life father), the patriarchal nucleus of the family, is a political activist who has long been watched closely by the Israeli authorities; Hammed risks immediate arrest if he approaches Israeli borders to attend his daughter’s wedding. His two sons, however, have already traversed these and other boundaries. The first son, Hattem (Eyad Sheety), who married a Russian woman despite his father’s unconditional objection, visits the family after years of estrangement. The second son, Marwan (Ashraf Barhoun), is a slick womanizer residing in Italy–his French ex-girlfriend (Julie-Anne Roth) is a UN delegate whose political neutrality will prove essential to the narrative. And towering above them all is Mona’s sister Amal (the wonderful Hiam Abbass), an open-minded Druze woman struggling to liberate herself from the constraints of traditional patriarchal society. Amal throws herself against her religion, seeking a university education in social work despite her husband’s uncompromising disapproval. The life of the Druze are not easy, and Palestinian-Israeli screenwriter Suha Arraf cleverly maintains a modernized and progressive point of view to tell their story.
While a checkpoint-traversing wedding has already been used as a political metaphor in Hany Abu-Assad‘s 2002 drama “Rana’s Wedding,” Riklis, to my mind, better understands how to use it without falling into cliches or unnecessary pathos. On the surface, “The Syrian Bride” might be a naive and idealistic attempt to create a film out of love, “love for the physical spirit of freedom, love for the physical and emotional landscapes that surround us, all of us,” as Riklis admits. Nevertheless, the political observations subtly resonating throughout the film’s intimate mosaic of characters and perspectives, along with a clever dose of critical black humor, seem to override the slightly banal humanistic message. The wedding guests’ life stories are told with a compassionate sensitivity that personalizes the turmoil in the area and gives a human face to a community whose story is barely ever recounted.
It is mostly through the second part of the film, when the bureaucratic problems begin, and the efforts to conduct the wedding reach a dead end, that the situation’s absurdity is fully realized. Despite the honestly good intentions of the Israeli government notary (Robert Hoenig), who comes all the way from Jerusalem to stamp Mona’s papers, the Syrian border officer (Norman Issa) makes the surprising decision to take a stand on the never-ending 1967 conflict: “The Golan is Syria,” he declares cockily, “so who am I to call the president?” While the French UN delegate tries desperately to save the ceremony from falling apart, the area seems to have its own rules. Characters become hopelessly “stuck” in a geographical no man’s land, a political twilight zone in which they simply cannot respond to the immediate situation. Mona, sitting motionlessly and wearing her wedding dress just a few feet away from her new life, is the victim of political arbitrariness and ridiculous procedural struggles (the hapless tale of Viktor Navorski in Spielberg‘s “The Terminal” unavoidably comes to mind here).
Inspired partly by “Vegvul Natan” (a.k.a “Borders“), his 1998 documentary about Israeli border towns, “The Syrian Bride” is Riklis’s most successful, least compromised attempt thus far to politically contextualize a personal drama (having learned, perhaps, from the mistakes of the nation’s cinematic ambassador Amos Gitai). Not unlike Danis Tanovic‘s 2001 Bosnian political allegory “No Man’s Land,” it cleverly makes use of the stagnancy in its geographical setting to create sympathy for individual plights. As in reality, traveling across Israeli borders in contemporary films has never been so difficult. It seems that the prospects to cross over to the other side for the optimistic beginning of a new life are as poor as those of a fatalistic attempt to end one (and I could be tempted to go even further here in comparing “The Syrian Bride” with Hany Abu-Assad’s latest, “Paradise Now“). Admittedly, there is something very compelling and genuinely moving in impossible buoyancy. The last shot of Mona walking fearlessly and against all odds towards the Syrian border is a haunting image of desperate hope.
[Ohad Landesman is a Reverse Shot staff writer and has written for Film Comment, Interview, and the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv]
Take 2 By Michael Joshua Rowin
Cinema may be a temporal medium, but narrative films usually relieve the weight of time by employing familiar tropes to carry us along and captivate our attention. Our sense of plodding time–and our awareness of sitting in a dark room at the mercy of a smattering of shadows and colors on a screen–is never so diverted as when we are entertained. So it’s always interesting to come across films that actively test our patience, forcing us to confront our own frustration and boredom. “The Syrian Bride” is a fairly mild example–it’s no Warholian endurance test–but its last 20 minutes are fascinating for actively resisting plot progression and concentrating on a seemingly unsolvable stasis.
As Jeanne, an International Red Cross worker, endlessly crosses and re-crosses the Syrian-Israel border to secure Mona’s entry into Syria and marriage, the sheer ridiculousness of institutional bureaucracy plays out in realistic and grinding detail. Our cause for concern comes out of the aggravation of having to watch a wedding put on hold for technicalities involving rubber stamps and White-Out, and director Eran Riklis exploits this feeling to the fullest extent. His point is clearly a political one, but whereas “The Syrian Bride”‘s other topics, like Muslim female liberation, are delivered through stale schematics, the halted momentum of the last reel manipulates time in order to make us as helpless and stuck as its characters. That most of “The Syrian Bride” is a rather humdrum experience poses an interesting dilemma: Can a film be considered excruciating when the situation it portrays truly deserves that adjective? The whole idea of such discomfort and entropy is to reevaluate our viewing habits. While “The Syrian Bride” is too conventional to take us all the way there, the anti-build-up to its anti-climax is a worthy exercise in reductio ad absurdum.
Take 3 By Lauren Kaminsky
“The Syrian Bride” presents us with the modern geopolitical equivalent of Greek mythology: by crossing the border into Syria to join her betrothed, Mona must trade her Israeli identity for a Syrian one, never to return. But, as the film makes clear, the Israeli identity of this Arabic speaking, pro-Syrian Druze community in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights was troubled to begin with, to put it mildly. Protestors (including Mona’s father) can be heard marching and chanting, “Golan belongs to Syria,” while Mona waits at home, holding court in her wedding dress as friends and family drop in to say goodbye. By the time the film ends, Mona’s absence is acutely felt.
I missed her, just as her family does–astonishing considering the infrequency and insubstantiality of Mona’s dialogue. Ultimately, I missed her not because she won my affection but because I was completely overwhelmed by the family drama brought together by the circumstance of her wedding. The reconciliation of Mona’s proud father, Hammed, and her prodigal brother, Hattem, is eclipsed only by the heartbreaking resignation of her headstrong sister, Amal, who carries the soul of the family and the film.
As in mythology, each character in this economical film is there for a reason (the doctor doctors, the lawyer lawyers, and the Red Cross worker runs laps across the border trying to save the day)–none more so than Mona herself, whose wedding seems to exist for no other reason than for the sake of her family. A lesser film would be unable to resist the self-important “message” of political allegory, but this elegantly restrained film succeeds most as a small but dignified story of one day in the life of one family’s joy and sorrow.
[Lauren Kaminsky is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]