‘On the Map’ reveals the basketball contest that gave Israel a sense of sporting and national pride
By Kenneth Turan – Los Angeles Times
Sport, it’s been said, is the toy department of our culture, but even diversions can have their moment of unforeseen socio-political relevance.
That’s what happened in 1980, when a young U.S. Olympic ice hockey team surprised the mighty Soviets and won the gold medal in a contest that’s been described as the Miracle on Ice.
In a different sport three years earlier, and as detailed in the genial documentary “On The Map,” Israel experienced a similar epochal moment that shifted the national culture.
That was when the country’s Maccabi Tel Aviv team, with six Americans led by the charismatic Tal Brody, won the European Cup basketball championship in a tournament that had resonance above and beyond the final victory.
For it was after Maccabi’s miraculous semi-final win over CSKA Moscow, the fearsome Red Army team, that the over-the-moon Brody told a television interviewer, “We are on the map. And we are staying on the map — not only in sports but in everything.”
Israeli director Dani Menkin has been especially thorough in telling this classic against-all-odds sports story. He interviews Brody and his teammates, Israeli sports figures and American basketball luminaries like coach Digger Phelps, former NBA Commissioner David Stern and an enthusiastic Bill Walton, a former teammate of Brody’s on America’s 1970 national team.
Menkin also helps us understand why that casually uttered Brody phrase became a sensation, resonating in Israel for decades in a way that is fascinating from a historical perspective but also leads to some reflections about what is different in the world today.
The key figure in “On the Map” is obviously Brody, a fluid 6-foot-1 point guard from Trenton, N.J., who had the skills to be drafted 12th by the then-Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) in 1965.
But before the NBA season began, Brody went to Israel to compete in the Maccabiah Games, and that experience turned him in a completely different direction. Encouraged by the owners of the Maccabi Tel Aviv team and the celebrated Gen. Moshe Dayan, he decided he wanted to be part of something bigger than the NBA, he wanted to take basketball in Israel to another level.
This idea took firmer shape in the early 1970s, when other American players, some Jewish, some not, were persuaded to join Brody. The last piece of the puzzle, 6-foot-10 center Aulcie Perry, was signed after a competing center ate so much at a team banquet that the coach was afraid he would hog the ball.
No Israeli team had ever gotten past the first round in the European Cup tourney, but “On the Map” focuses in a game-by-game way on why the 1977 event turned out to be different.
Each contest had its own drama, and we both hear about it through memories and watch chunks of the contests themselves via game footage and home movies shot by rabid fans.
That semi-final game against the U.S.S.R. was problematic for several reasons, starting with the fact that the Soviets did not recognize Israel at the time and initially refused to even play before a neutral court was found in the tiny Belgian town of Virton.
Given that CSKA Moscow had several players from the national team that had beaten the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics, the Tel Aviv team shouldn’t have had a chance, which gave Israel’s victory so much resonance that former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, also interviewed here, says it helped sustain him during nine years in a Siberian prison camp.
While the final game against an Italian team was so watched in Israel that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin postponed the announcement of his resignation until it ended, Brody’s quote became the memory that lasted.
It was, in its exuberance, perfect for a time when Israel was seen and saw itself as a plucky underdog on the world stage. Whether justifiably or not, that perception has changed, and without really meaning to, “On the Map” brings today’s situation into sharper focus.
Before sharing Roger’s note and the Los Angeles Times review, I’d like to share a few words. I saw Tampopo yesterday at a 2:00 PM matinee screening at the Riviera Theatre in the hills above Santa Barbara. As I live close by, I arrived at or near showtime. Much to my surprise a line of filmgoers was still formed outside at the box office. On a warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon, waiting in line for a few minutes isn’t the end of the world. Santa Barbara International Film Festival Executive Director Roger Durling was outside the theater greeting and cajoling members of the line on upcoming screening at the Riviera Theater, the new home of the Santa Barbara Film Festival. After securing a ticket, I exchanged pleasantries with Mr. Durling and quickly made my way into the theater bypassing the concession line (Concessions are a favorite of mine!) Inside I spotted seats up front. Without much adieu, I planted myself in the middle of the row – front and center. What I saw and experienced over the course of the next nearly two hours was a lush, sensuously orchestrated film that left me delighted – albeit at times in stitches. Happy to say, I wasn’t the only one enjoying the film with raucous and clear audibles of laughter emanating from the seats behind me and from the few seats to the front of me.(Larry Gleeson)
To slurp with love: ‘Tampopo’ makes a welcome return
By Justin Chang – Los Angeles Times
The surreally amusing vignette that opens the great 1985 Japanese comedy “Tampopo” now plays, more than 30 years later, like a remarkably prescient public-service announcement. A gangster in a white suit (Koji Yakusho) takes his seat in the front row of a movie theater and addresses us through the screen, warning us not to even think about crunching potato chips and crumpling wrappers once the film has started.
Had “Tampopo” been made today, the gangster might well have thrown in a message about the rudeness of talking, texting and other 21st-century breaches of moviegoing etiquette — and with good reason. Making a welcome return to theaters in a 4k digital restoration courtesy of Janus Films, Jûzô Itami’s art-house hit offers the kind of sensory experience that demands a viewer’s complete surrender — to its sumptuous culinary imagery, to the subliminal aromas that seem to come wafting off the screen, and to a soundtrack alive with the sounds of food being prepared, cooked and devoured.
Naturally, too, “Tampopo” demands to be experienced on at least a partially filled stomach — not so empty as to turn the film into a torturous deprivation exercise, but not too stuffed to enjoy the bowl of ramen noodles that will almost certainly be your first post-screening meal. (Conveniently enough for Angelenos, the film is screening at the Nuart Theatre, a few blocks away from the ramen-packed stretch of Sawtelle Boulevard known as Little Osaka.)
An early scene laying out the proper way to approach a bowl of ramen — complete with foreplay-like instructions to “first caress the surface with the chopstick tips” and “then poke the pork” — sets the tone for a movie with an intuitive understanding of the chemical bond between food and sex, of the sensual circuitry that connects all human appetites.
There are many love stories folded into this film’s enjoyably meandering two hours, but “Tampopo” is above all about the romance of food, and the joyous, agonizing devotion and hard work required to tease out its manifold mysteries.
Setting herself to that task with good-humored determination is Tampopo herself (played by Itami’s wife, Nobuko Miyamoto), a widow and single mother who runs a failing noodle shop in Tokyo. With the help of Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a truck driver who wears his cowboy hat even in the bath, and his trusty sidekick, Gun (a very young Ken Watanabe), Tampopo sets out to turn her shop into a thriving, world-class establishment.
Her story becomes a sort of western spoof (“Once Upon a Time in the West,” anyone?) as she and her growing band of business partners visit rival restaurants, sniffing out secrets, comparing recipes and inevitably making a few enemies. And so begins a rigorous crash course in the culinary arts, for Tampopo and the audience: the ingredients of a perfect broth, the secret of rolling perfectly smooth noodles, the right slicing proportions for pork and scallions, the trick to keeping customers’ individually tailored orders straight.
Even as the movie playfully lampoons the obsessiveness with which Tampopo pores over these details — her boot camp consists of transferring a stock pot of water repeatedly from one stovetop to the next — its satire originates from a place of the utmost sincerity. “Tampopo” doesn’t just take food seriously; it grasps the foundational roles that food plays in every culture, and Itami’s curiosity about these roles, as well as his bottomless appetite for narrative incident, lead him away from Tampopo’s story and in search of other epicurean adventures.
As the movie drifts from one anecdote to another, pausing every so often to check in on its heroine’s progress, it shows how cuisine is both the great social leveler and a significant delineator of class. Its pleasures are at once elitist and egalitarian. A junior executive outclasses the high-powered dolts at a business lunch with his superior knowledge of French cooking; meanwhile, at the same restaurant, a group of young women practicing refined dining habits give in to their natural impulses, slurping down their spaghetti alle vongole as noisily as possible.
The screen becomes an international smorgasbord, the camera lingering over a deftly prepared dish of ketchup fried rice, over slices of Korean-style beef sizzling on a tabletop grill, and — most heart-stoppingly — over a freshly shucked oyster glistening with a single, Sriracha-hued drop of blood. The erotic undertones in that latter image are taken to particularly runny extremes by the gangster and his moll (Fukumi Kuroda), who turn a raw egg yolk into the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Cinematic fusion cuisine par excellence, “Tampopo” mixes genres and styles with similar gusto: It’s a western one minute, a yakuza thriller the next, with ample downtime for dream sequences and grotesque interludes.
Whether they’re played for irony, suspense, tragic farce or bawdy humor, these subplots suggest a stream of endlessly refillable side dishes — some more piquant than others, but all of them in service of a robustly satisfying main course. The thrill of Tampopo’s end goal — to earn the sort of respect rarely accorded a woman in a male-dominated profession — is only mildly diluted by the fact that her quest for the perfect ramen requires about an hour’s worth of group mansplaining. The final triumph is hers, and ours.
Released in American theaters in 1987, “Tampopo” predated a number of foodie cinema classics, such as “Babette’s Feast,” “Big Night” and “Eat Drink Man Woman.” It was the second and most popular of the 10 features that Itami directed before his death in 1997 — an apparent suicide that has since been shrouded in rumors of foul play. His 1992 anti-yakuza satire “Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion,” made him enemies in Japan’s criminal underworld, five of whom attacked and wounded him days after the film’s premiere.
The social critique in “Tampopo” is gentler and more dispersed, but it animates every scene, and it accounts for why — even in an era of celebrity chefs, food-porn Instagram accounts and cookery-as-contact-sport reality shows — the movie has lost none of its power to revivify the senses, not least of all one’s sense of humor. It has the irresistible freshness of a recipe that many have tried to copy and none have matched: a barbed, sprawling, scintillating vision of a society happily in thrall to its taste buds.
Before I get to Roger’s note, I have seen the film and, while it was released in 1967, the issues portrayed in the film are pertinent today. With a feel of direct cinema and cinema verite’, The Battle of Algiers is engaging and delivers a closeup view of terror, tactics and strategy. Highly recommended!
50 years ago, Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo released one of the greatest movies ever made – THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. The film is a big-screen recreation of the bloody mid 1950s Algerian uprising against French rule. The film was shot on a low budget and used non-actors from Algiers. The fact that the point of view is from those colonized rattled the French government enough to ban the film. It went on to get three Oscar nominations including Best Director. The film is a masterpiece, and it has been restored in a gorgeous digital print. This film is so influential – and political thrillers filmed today borrow from Pontecorvo’s style.
THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is as urgent and immediate as it was 50 years ago. Below find a wonderful essay by Justin Chang from the LA Times on the film’s importance. It plays tonight at 5:00pm and tomorrow at 7:30pm at the Riviera Theatre. I will highly encourage you to see this landmark film.
Once banned, ‘Battle of Algiers” smart, compassionate take on terror and rebellion resonates today
By Justin Chang – LA Times
For those who have seen “The Battle of Algiers,” Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterful 1966 panorama of political insurrection and urban anxiety, the title alone can summon forth indelible images of Algerian resistance. Three women sneak through the crowded casbah to plant bombs in public places. A revolutionary leader named Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) waits quietly in the darkness as he’s surrounded by police. A triumphant throng of men and women shout and cheer amid a rising cloud of smoke as their hard-fought dream of independence has finally come to pass.
Buried amid all these defining moments is a calm, pivotal scene in which a French military chief named Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin) trains his soldiers to root out members of Algeria’s National Liberation Front, cautioning them to be discriminating in their search. “Are they all our enemies? We know they’re not,” he says of the Algerian locals. “But a small minority holds sway by means of terror and violence. We must deal with this minority in order to isolate and destroy it.”
It is difficult to read those words in isolation, divorced from their political and cinematic context, and not hear a shivery echo of recent headlines. You may have heard someone express a similar sentiment when parsing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or differentiating between Muslims and Islamists. However chilling Mathieu’s sentiments may be, they may strike you as a model of sensitivity compared with Donald Trump’s infamous remarks about the Muslim world — or, for that matter, his son Donald Jr.’s recent comparison of the Syrian refugee population to a bowl of selectively tainted Skittles.
Closer to home, the notion of a dangerous sub-minority feels painfully relevant to the ongoing clashes between police officers and unarmed black men in America. The latest fatalities in El Cajon, Calif.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Charlotte, N.C., suggest that when it comes to this cycle of senseless violence, too many cops — however vehemently they might deny it — still view great swaths of the African American population as a criminal menace by default. (Reviewing Pontecorvo’s film in 1967, then-New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “One may sense a relation in what goes on in this picture to what has happened in the Negro ghettos of some of our American cities more recently.”)
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that there has perhaps never been a better time to experience or re-experience “The Battle of Algiers,” which is commemorating its 50th anniversary with a digital 4K restoration that will appear in select theaters on Oct. 7 courtesy of Rialto Pictures. Then again, as history is always at pains to remind us, there has never been an inappropriate moment for a picture that so completely collapses the distance between now and then.
The movie’s tremendous dramatic urgency and sociopolitical currency can be attributed, in no small part, to its still-electrifying alchemy of form and content. Mimicking the jagged, caught-on-the-fly syntax of a ’50s black-and-white newsreel even as it moves with the propulsive sweep of a thriller, the movie seems to be everywhere at once, the camera capturing pockets of anxiety and unease even in broad daylight.
A dangerous armed movement rises from the shadows, yet with an insistently human face. Soldiers bound up the steps of the casbah, their footfalls echoed by the up-and-down rattlings of Ennio Morricone’s score. The omniscience of the film’s perspective and the fluidity of the editing ease us into the narrative yet slowly divest us of our moral bearings. The film is not just a relentlessly gripping entertainment but also a cinematic Rorschach blot, a moral miasma that tosses our sympathies this way and that.
Feared, loathed and loved over the last half-century, “The Battle of Algiers” won the Golden Lion at the 1966 Venice Film Festival and was later nominated for three Academy Awards (director, original screenplay and foreign-language film). It was deemed so incendiary in France that it was banned there for five years, and even afterward it has remained a magnet for controversy, often derided as an apologia or a blueprint for terrorism, rather than a call for common understanding.
It’s worth recalling that the last time “The Battle of Algiers” showed theatrically here was in 2004, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A few months earlier, in 2003, the Pentagon hosted a private screening, advertised by a flier that touted the picture’s relevance: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”
Whatever viewers at the time might have learned about how a Western imperialist power should or should not deal with a rapidly mounting, many-sided insurgency, those lessons seem positively quaint in light of the geopolitical crisis that looms before us at present, following the rise of Islamic State and the subsequent deadly attacks in Europe and the U.S. What might have once seemed a far-flung, local concern has spread far beyond Iraq to consume what feels like the world entire. Meanwhile, on a very different yet simultaneous front, the struggle for black justice at home continues, and for some Americans, its roots and motivations — and the cycles of brutality and unrest that emerge in its wake — are no less difficult to grasp.
Who is safe? Who is innocent? Why must they riot? Where will the next attack occur? Was that shooting or bombing the work of a terrorist, or just an unhinged mind? (And in the end, does it matter?) “The Battle of Algiers” offers no reassuring answers to these questions, but to watch the film, with its startlingly evenhanded treatment of both sides, is to experience the sort of mature intelligence and tough-minded compassion that makes you long to believe hope is still possible.
The film’s greatness was hardly preordained. In his essay for the 2004 Criterion Collection DVD release, British film lecturer and critic Peter Matthews recalls how “The Battle of Algiers” was originally conceived along more Hollywood-friendly lines, complete with a journalist hero (set to be played by Paul Newman) who would serve as an entry point for Western audiences. Fortunately, heeding the influence of their country’s neorealist masters, Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas refused to make the Algerians a secondary presence in their own story. As Matthews writes, the filmmakers “knew that every artistic decision is simultaneously an ethical one.”
If the perspective of “The Battle of Algiers” still feels radically diffuse, its aesthetic choices have been more readily absorbed into the mainstream. A war film shot with bristling handheld urgency — like, say, Paul Greengrass’ “Bloody Sunday” and “Green Zone,” or Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” — is no longer compared to documentaries or newsreels; hyperkinetic Steadicam is simply par for the course. The use of untrained performers (Martin was the sole professional actor cast in Pontecorvo’s film) is no longer a novelty, even if most American films still rely on big-name stars and strong, relatable protagonists to lure audiences toward difficult subject matter.
The spirit of Pontecorvo’s filmmaking can be felt even in pictures with markedly different stylistic DNA. Picking up where “The Battle of Algiers” left off, Kathryn Bigelow’s excellent post-9/11 thrillers address the ground-level pressures of dealing with an insurgency (“The Hurt Locker”) and the morality of torture (“Zero Dark Thirty”). Clint Eastwood’s World War II drama “Letters From Iwo Jima,” though done in a much more classical register, feels no less powerful in its willingness to penetrate the mind-set of a side that we typically perceive as the enemy.
Ken Loach, who has long cited Pontecorvo’s influence, made perhaps his most “Algiers”-like effort with 2006’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” which also chronicled the tensions that flare between the occupiers (the British) and the occupied (the Irish). When Loach received the Palme d’Or at Cannes for the film, the words he spoke might as well have been a permanent epitaph for “The Battle of Algiers,” if “epitaph” is the right word for a film that refuses to die: “Maybe if we tell the truth about the past, we tell the truth about the present.”
It’s rare that I find a film so entrancing and hopeful that makes me feel excited about the future of cinema. It’s a most auspicious film debut from director Stephen Dunn which won Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival. You’ve seen coming of age stories before, but Dunn has a completely unique and theatrical language.
The film was reviewed by the New York Times and it was a Critic’s Pick. It plays tonight at 5:00pm and tomorrow at 7:30pm at the Riviera Theatre.
In ‘Closet Monster,’ a Teenager’s Self-Discovery Is Tinged With Danger
By Ken Jaworowski – New York Times
You may find yourself hoping that “Closet Monster” fades to black during one of its few cheerful scenes — that way, the conflicted young man at its center will get a happy ending. This affecting film prompts that kind of concern for its characters. You want them to be safe.
Still, as with all of us, happiness isn’t guaranteed, a fact made clear in Stephen Dunn’s script. Mr. Dunn, who also directed, has created individuals who defy easy branding. Outcomes are far from assured, and there’s a constant sense of danger. That threat, as Saul Bellow said of death, becomes “the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.”
We first meet Oscar as a boy struggling to comprehend his parents’ breakup. Soon he witnesses a sadistic assault against another boy. Those events echo years later when, in high school, he’s desperate to escape his home and understand his sexuality.
As in “Mysterious Skin” or “Boyhood,” this coming-of-age story can feel entrancing, particularly with its surreal touches. Oscar talks to his hamster, which speaks back (voiced by an actress — no spoilers — who knows something about the surreal). And Oscar’s imagination occasionally takes flight, and we ride along.
Connor Jessup wonderfully inhabits the teenage Oscar, who observes others while trying to find himself. Aaron Abrams, as his father, and Aliocha Schneider and Sofia Banzhaf, as friends, are just as multilayered. Jack Fulton is heartbreaking as the younger Oscar.
Near the end of “Closet Monster,” Oscar’s mother recalls his difficult birth, explaining that he has rarely been fortunate. It’s a tough scene that may portend his future. Of course, we don’t know if Oscar will be safe, and neither does he. In this film, and in life, that uncertainty is both deeply scary and greatly exciting.
The 32nd SBIFF will close with the Lone Scherfig’s romantic comedy THEIR FINEST at the Arlington Theatre on Saturday, February 11 in advance of the film’s March 24 stateside release.
SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling stated, “Lone’s deeply touching film is authentic, funny and depicts the power that cinema has to bring people together and share their stories. It was the perfect choice to close this year’s festival.”
The year is 1940, Britain. With the nation devastated by the war, the British ministry turns to propaganda films to boost morale at home. Realizing their films could use “a woman’s touch,” the ministry hires Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) as a scriptwriter in charge of writing the female dialogue. Although her artist husband looks down on her job, Catrin’s natural flair quickly gets her noticed by charming lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin and Buckley set out to make an epic feature film based on the Battle of Dunkirk starring pretentious fading movie star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy). As bombs are dropping all around them, Catrin, Buckley and their colorful cast and crew work furiously to make a film that will warm the hearts of the nation.
The film is produced by Stephen Woolley, Amanda Posey, Finola Dwyer and Elizabeth Karlsen. Christine Langan, Ed Wethered, Robert Norris, Ivan Dunleavy, Peter Watson, Zygi Kamasa and Thorsten Schumacher serve as executive producers. The film is produced by Number 9 Films and Wildgaze Films.
The 32nd Santa Barbara International Film Festival is slated to run February 1st through February 11th, 2017.
About the Santa Barbara International Film Festival
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival is a 501(c)(3) non-profit arts and educational organization dedicated to discovering and showcasing the best in independent and international cinema. Over the past 30 years, SBIFF has become one of the leading film festivals in the United States – attracting 90,000 attendees and offering 11 days of 200+ films, tributes and symposiums, fulfilling their mission to engage, enrich, and inspire the Santa Barbara community through film.
SBIFF continues its commitment to education and the community through free programs like its 10-10-10 Student Filmmaking and Screenwriting Competitions, Mike’s Field Trip to the Movies, National Film Studies Program, AppleBox Family Films, 3rd Weekend and educational seminars. This past June, SBIFF entered a new era with the acquisition of the historic and beloved Riviera Theatre. The theatre is SBIFF’s new home and is the catalyst for program expansion and marks the first time that Santa Barbara has had a 24/7 community center to expand their mission of educational outreach.
L’Shana Tova! This week we’re featuring SAND STORM – Israel’s official submission to this past year’s Academy Award. The film takes place in a Bedouin village in Southern Israel – and it’s rich in cultural specifics. But it’s themes are so universal. It gives a powerful – clear–eyed look at the inequalities facing women in that part of the world.
Below is a review from Variety. It plays tonight at 5:00pm and tomorrow at 7:30pm at the Riviera Theatre.
A sympathetic but clear-eyed look at the inequalities that entrap women (and the men they love and resent) in a Bedouin village.
By Ella Taylor – Variety
On the face of it, “Sand Storm” presents a familiar feminist tale of a teenaged girl trapped between her desire to control her destiny and the constraints of her traditional family. Yet this emotionally intelligent first feature offers a sympathetic but clear-eyed look at the tangled skein of inequalities that entrap women (and the men they love and resent) in a Bedouin village stranded between modernization and anachronistic patriarchy. Written and directed by a Jewish Israeli woman, Elite Zexer, and made with a Jewish-Arab crew, the film boasts alluring desert visuals, muscular acting and intricate psychology that should attract audiences for women’s movies, foreign art films and those who believe that melodrama still has a place in cinema.
Men are not permitted at a Bedouin celebration in Southern Israel to welcome (with variable enthusiasm) the arrival of a second wife. Instead the older women wear fake mustaches, one of many striking images in “Sand Storm” that address the crucible of anger and pain that simmers beneath the revelry. Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), the man’s first wife, glowers magnificently, and not just because she’s going to have to share power with the younger newcomer. Discovering that her daughter, Layla (Lamis Ammar), has a secret lover at school, Jalila freaks out at first, then defends Layla to her father, Suliman (Haitham Omari), who has given his eldest child many modern advantages — a cell phone, driving lessons, an education — and yet, for his own murky reasons, shows willing to sacrifice her future to an arranged marriage to a village man she barely knows.
At once autocratic and weak, Suliman props up an archaic social structure in which men call the shots but women clean up the messes. Ammar makes a charmingly frisky Layla, but the energy of “Sand Storm” surely belongs to Blal-Asfour as her mother, a caged tiger who smolders and paces and deliver tongue-lashings to her hapless conformist of a husband as needed. Rail as they might, Jalila and Layla remain caught between loyalty to their disintegrating family and an emerging hunger for autonomy and experience that are prohibited by their medieval fate. Those fake mustaches signal both strength and vulnerability, and the movie captures the stark beauty of the Negev desert where this traditionally nomadic tribe has put down roots, marred by a pervasive sense of entrapment for the young woman who’s both deeply attached to her mother and sisters, and desperate to fly the coop.
The handheld camerawork can be rough at times, and here and there Zexer steps a little heavily on the pedal of metaphor: A long tunnel works a touch too hard to flag Layla’s struggle between freedom and family duty. But the director juggles different points of view with aplomb, and her strong script addresses with impressive subtlety the gap between what people say and what they do under extreme pressure.
The strands of her narrative come together to show how everyone is left the loser in polygamous marriage, a divide-and-rule institution that pits not only husband and wife against one another, but also women who would otherwise be inclined to mutual support. Mercifully there’s no Hollywood ending here, only a bracing touch of mordant humor about interior decor that has the discreet hum of groundwork being laid, and rebellions yet to come.
FATIMA was the “small miracle of a film” that won the Best Picture at this year’s Cesars – France’s equivalent of the Oscars. It’s such a profoundly enriching experience watching this tale about mothers and daughters and immigrants in France.
It plays tonight at 7:30pm at the Riviera Theatre.
See you at the movies!
Review: In ‘Fatima,’ a Muslim Mother Working in France Hits Her Limit
By Stephen Holden – The New York Times
“If my daughter is a success, my happiness is complete,” declares the title character of “Fatima,” a small miracle of a film from the French director Philippe Faucon.
Divorced from her husband, whom she followed to France and with whom she is still friendly, Fatima (Soria Zeroual) is a 44-year-old North African woman raising two teenage girls in Lyon. The oldest, Nesrine (Zita Hanrot), 18, is a first-year medical student, and the younger, Souad (Kenza-Noah Aïche), is a sullen, sexy 15-year-old rebel ashamed of her mother for working as a housecleaner.
Souad sneers that Fatima is “a useless she-donkey” and “a living rag.” But her mother, however stung, endures the abuse and chooses her words carefully when firing back. Fatima loves her daughter despite her insolence. Steeped in North African Muslim culture, Fatima has traditional notions of what she calls “respectable” female behavior that don’t apply in France, and she is upset when Souad insists on baring her shoulders.
If the movie, loosely based on two books by Fatima Elayoubi, tells a familiar story of immigrants struggling to make something of themselves in an alien culture (Fatima speaks some French but reads only Arabic), it does so in a tone that is kindhearted but clearheaded, and the performances are low-key and believable. (Mr. Faucon picked Ms. Zeroual, a nonprofessional actress, to play Fatima.) It makes you feel the intense pressures facing Fatima and her family from all sides. When a young man flirts with Nesrine on a train, she politely but with a tinge of regret explains that she has to study.
Some of those pressures come from gossipy female neighbors who are envious, and judgmental. One Moroccan woman fumes that Nesrine didn’t greet her at a bus stop, an incident that Nesrine, lost in her thoughts of school, doesn’t recall. While on the job 12 or more hours a day, Fatima is treated with barely disguised contempt by female employers who brusquely order her around and who, she rightly senses, suspect her of petty theft.
Nesrine nearly cracks under the strain of her studies, which require her to absorb complex medical terminology. She worries most about not disappointing Fatima, who is sacrificing everything to pay for her schooling. Nesrine simply can’t afford to fail.
Eventually Fatima, exhausted, falls down stairs with her cleaning equipment and takes a paid five-month medical leave. But when the time is used up, she complains of continuing shoulder pains, although tests indicate she has recovered. She has simply reached her limit.
To bolster her morale, Fatima has been keeping a bedside journal, written in Arabic. As she reads aloud from it to a sympathetic doctor, her reflections on hardship, sacrifice and life’s unfairness have the tone of a humble manifesto.
“Be proud of all the Fatimas who clean working women’s houses,” she reads, and her words resound with the determination and quiet nobility of a woman who, however downtrodden, knows her own worth.
Fatima” is not rated. It is in French and Arabic, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 19 minutes.