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Friday, Feb. 6, 2009

'The Syrian Bride'

Love has no borders

Strictly speaking, "The Syrian Bride" is a wedding movie, but its concerns are less with the wedding than about the effect of ethnic politics — subtle or not — on individual and family relationships.

The Syrian Bride Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Ready for love: Hiam Abbass (left) and Clara Khoury in "The Syrian Bride"

Director: Eran Riklis
Running time: 97 minutes
Language: Multilingual
Opens Feb. 21, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

A young woman, Mona, is about to get married and family members gather from far and near (but mostly near) for the event. An estranged brother turns up with a wife and son no one has met before, and mothers and aunts convene in the kitchen to cook a modest feast. It sounds so familiar, the kind of stuff we've been seeing for decades in countless wedding movies, but the big difference is that Mona and her family are from a Druze village situated on a patch of land in the Golan Heights on the Israeli-Syrian border. The Druze consider themselves Arabic and Syrian, but their land has been under Israeli control since 1967. Since then, according to the film, the Druze haven't been allowed to carry passports and technically are not allowed to leave the area, but many men have escaped for expat lives.

The village they leave behind is entrenched in tradition and returning sons have a hellish time trying to cross the border and are permitted to do so only in the event of family weddings and funerals. As for the Druze women, very few are allowed to leave at all.

Mona's husband-to-be, Tallel (Dirar Suleiman), is a Syrian whom she had never met, but the match is deemed worthy by both families. This is the only opportunity she's likely to have, to leave the village and see the outside world and though there's a risk that she's exchanging one kind of incarceration for another (Tallel's own family is very conservative), she's willing to cross that border to be his wife, knowing she won't be seeing her parents and sister again for a long time, if ever.

Directed by Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis ("Cup Final"), "The Syrian Bride" combines a documentarylike spontaneity with precision art-directing. The composition of each frame is stark, striking and utterly restrained, but the emotions that spill across the screen are fraught with an electric immediacy. Some of the finest talent in the now bustling Israeli film industry have assembled to create this brilliant sliver of pathos and protest (for the message resonating in Mona's anguished expression is unmistakable): Clara Khoury as Mona; her real-life father Makram J. Khoury playing her dad Hammed; Hiam Abbass — long known in French cinema — as Mona's older sister Amal. Speaking of which, this is Amal's story as well as Mona's — the wedding day somehow triggers the courage for to break free from her own stifling marriage. Amal has the air of an incredibly intelligent woman who has kept her personality under wraps, mainly for the sake of her long-suffering mother and a political activist father who has spent most of adulthood in and out of prison. Her brothers had left home to seek better lives — one of them has come back for the first time in 8 years with a Russian wife and small son. It seems the siblings are trying to live out their desires and ambitions despite the political climate, while Amal had caved in to the demands of duty and tradition. "You must not be like me," she tells her teenage daughter, quietly urging the girl not to get carried away by the sight of a big white dress, and aim for something more.

Not that Amal's feminist feelings get in the way of supporting Mona every step of the way, which really amounts to whether she can make it safely across the border.

The wedding itself is almost beside the point; there's no ceremony anyway since there's no bridegroom. In the meantime, Mona's brothers dart in and out of government buildings to secure a border permit, which despite elaborate prepping is denied due to a bureaucratic snag and the possible spitefulness of a U.N. clerk, who happens to be the younger brother's jilted ex. As for Hammed, he's no help — too caught up in his activist's convictions. As it turns out, the most weddinglike scene in the film is when Mona takes everything in her stride, and walks straight out toward the electrical fence and the machinegun toting guards in her glorious wedding dress. She doesn't smile and the soundtrack is muted to emphasize the sound of her dress scraping along the jagged gravel.

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