“My ambition, really, was to make a film about women,” says director Eran Riklis to film critic Karen Durbin on the commentary track that accompanies The Syrian Bride. “Once you’re making a film about the Druze, which is a society in which women are oppressed, it’s important to put the woman in the center of the story.”
The woman at the center of this story is Amal (Hiam Abbass), sister to the eponymous bride Mona (Clara Khoury). Amal (her name means “hope” in Arabic) is a Druze woman (“nationality: undefined”) from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and she’s stuck in the middle: between her traditional, burka-wearing mother and her modern, cigarette-smoking daughter; between her pro-Syrian father and her expatriate brothers; between the past and the future.
Close-ups of Amal’s face begin and end the film, and though it’s called The Syrian Bride and set on the day of her sister’s wedding we don’t need Riklis to tell us that she’s our true protagonist. The acceptance letter from the University of Haifa’s School of Social Work that arrives for her in the morning confirms this by presenting her with a decision emblematic of the choices that her Druze community faces. Does she turn her back on tradition by defying her husband and enrolling in this program? Does she turn her back on Syria by attending a university in Israel?
On the day of the wedding she actually finds herself, along with the rest of her family, in between these two countries. It has been arranged for Mona to marry a Syrian actor named Tallel (Derar Sliman) whom she knows only from television, which necessitates leaving Israel for Syria, never to return. Unfortunately, the Israeli government has chosen this day to begin stamping the passports of the Druze leaving Israel. The Syrian border patrol won’t let Mona into their country with a passport carrying this stamp, but the Israeli border patrol won’t let someone “from Syria” back into Israel.
Eran Riklis is part of a movement that some critics are calling the “Israeli New Wave”, which includes Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water and the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now. It’s typical of this group’s humanist values that the real villain in The Syrian Bride is Bureaucracy. The central conflict of Mona stranded in No Man’s Land could be easily resolved by one side bending just a little, but the human agents on either side are powerless to act of their own volition and their phone calls to the Men In Charge go unanswered (in a series of striking shots of phones ringing in empty Israeli and Syrian offices).
With the help of a Red Cross worker named Jeanne (Julie-Anne Roth), Amal and her family on one side and Tallel on the other try to prevail upon the border officials to make an exception, to let the bride pass. Eventually, though, it becomes clear that the stalemate cannot be broken by official means and Mona decides to take matters into her own hands; inspired by her example, Amal follows suit in her own life.
This ambiguous, optimistic ending (it’s not necessary to reveal details) is keeping in the spirit of the New Wave ethos, and it contains both the secret to its success and the seed of its ultimate failure. These films are particularly popular with young Israeli audiences and abroad in the West, with people frustrated by 60 years of failed diplomacy and violence, with people willing to see things from the “other guy’s” point of view. The filmmakers suggest that it’s this same frustration which impels Mona and Amal that also motivates the suicide bombers in Paradise Now.
It’s an encouraging message, for this frustration is far easier to understand than hatred, and it seems far, far easier to combat. At their heart these films are about nothing more complicated than the idea that we are all the same inside that if we could just sit down and talk to one another, man to man (or woman to woman!) we could work it all out. That the Middle Eastern governments, the terrorist organizations, the UN (in The Syrian Bride, benignly useless) are not the agents of change, but rather obstructions.
But look closely at the ending, examine this solution which is not a solution. For all of their optimism there’s something that, sadly, smacks of helplessness about the willingness of Riklis and his ilk to surrender in the final reel to surrealism and dreamy ambiguity. As if they lacked conviction in their implicit message that everything will be all right in the end. For all of their optimism there are no answers, no concrete solutions, here.
Perhaps, though, that’s just too much to ask of a filmmaker or a film. As humanist filmmaking The Syrian Bride excels in fleshing out the lives of a disparate cast of people in a misunderstood part of the world, of showing how they live side-by-side even if it doesn’t show how they might live side-by-side in peace.
The Syrian Bride is an attractive film. Shooting in CinemaScope, Raklis and cinematographer Michael Weisweg find a surfeit of color in this stark desert setting that’s appropriate to the occasion of a Druze wedding. The performances are uniformly moving, and Abbass (who last year appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Munich) is particularly effective as Amal.
The DVD does the film justice. The transfer is excellent, the sound crisp and clear. The commentary track is interesting and insightful and the other extras, though commonplace (a “Making Of” documentary and a festival interview with Abbass) are well-made and worthwhile. Riklis is obviously a capable filmmaker and The Syrian Bride is a satisfyingly stirring film. Perhaps there’s little more to its political philosophy than boundless optimism, but that is a start. Depending on where he and his comrades choose to go next the Israeli New Wave might well prove a movement worth watching.