It drops by the local art house every few months without fail--the "challenging" exotic import, too maddeningly slow and nonlinear for the "Pan's Labyrinth" crowd to cross it over to mainstream success, yet too naively earnest and moppet-dependent to impress a critical community taken with the more avant-garde and minimalist likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or the Dardenne brothers. An unfortunate situation, perhaps, but don't shed too many tears for a foreign film caught between a rock and a hard place like "Bab-Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul." Tunisian director Nacer Khemir's latest internationally co-produced effort--the last in his "Desert Trilogy" and the first to find theatrical distribution in the States, though the first two will be released on DVD this month--will likely have supporters able to see in its fairy tale platitudes and vague beauty something "life-affirming" and indicative of the dervish culture it purportedly represents. But without wholly dismissing its unpretentious spirituality, it's still difficult to praise "Bab'Aziz" merely on the basis of good intentions. Khemir is going for the mythical and transcendent, but "Bab'Aziz" too often feels fluffy and antiquated.
"Bab'Aziz" is a "journey film": the title character (Parviz Shahinkhou) is an elderly, blind dervish pilgrim crossing the desert with his precocious granddaughter Ishtar (Maryam Hamid) in search of an unspecifically located gathering of dervishes. Before they arrive the film diverges into a series of supplementary stories reminiscent, at least for this Westerner, of the 1001 Nights. Bab'Aziz intermittently tells of his past life as a prince drawn away from his rule toward a pool where for days on end he, indeed, contemplates the very depths of his soul; a romantic, or possibly a lunatic, recalls his encounter with the woman who has had him forever after seeking her at the bottom of wells; a young poet similarly waits to once again meet the lover who stole his identity in order to find her father.
All of this is enchanting, but in a way that never quite becomes transporting or, on a basic emotional level, moving. The dervish music composed for the film by Armand Amar probably does more to take us into suggested worlds of magic, love, and awe than anything else, and on its own might even be worth the price of admission. The screenplay, however, constitutes a major setback--as penned by Khemir himself ("with the participation of" former Antonioni and Fellini collaborator Tonino Guerra), it relies too often on self-help cliches ("He who has faith will never get lost," "Everyone in this great world has a task to fulfill") rather than complex ruminations on the nature of desire, god, and other Big Themes to bring characters and situations to life. Khemir overcompensates with heartfelt paeans to universalism, best exemplified by a safely sumptuous visual palette--yes, the frayed, rolling wilderness of the desert and the colorful robes and dresses of the cast are gorgeous, but only as a reprieve for the eye and never as a living environment in which to lose oneself. From time to time a tracking shot across the dunes or an affectionate interaction between characters will stand out so that by the end one would be unwilling to deem Khemir's film a failure. Yet it's nonetheless comes across as genteel magical realism for an audience demanding breezy tourism at the movies without the indignity of seeming uncultured.