Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

The emotional chasm between modern life and tradition in Tunisia can seem as wide as the desert.

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed/Written by Mehdi M. Barsaoui
Produced by Marc Irmer, Habib Attia, and Chantal Fischer
France/Tunisia/Lebanon/Qatar. 96 min. Not Rated.
In Arabic and French with English subtitles
With: Sami Bouajila, Najla Ben Abdallah, Youssef Khemiri, Qasim Rawane, Slah Msaddak, Mohamed, and Ali Ben Jemaa
U.S. COVID-delayed 2021 release by ArtMattan Films December 10 at Film Forum in New York and Facets Multimedia in Chicago; December 17 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Theaters

A Son is an intense close-up on a father, mother, and child in Tunisia. Debut director Mehdi M. Barsaoui searingly puts them at the intersection of first world technology and capitalism with third world tradition and war in a desert that is alternately frightening and beautiful. Raw emotions rule.

First, friends and family gather for a happy picnic at an oasis, where the women’s hair is free, their talk salty in educated French, and “Fares Ben Youssef” (Sami Bouajila, a native Tunisian known internationally for the French films Days of Glory and The Witnesses) proudly celebrates his wife “Meriem”s (Najla Ben Abdallah) career promotion. It’s September 24, 2011 and they feel so free because of the Arab Spring’s Jasmine Revolution and the limited support for Islamists in Tunis.

Extending their loving holiday to a fancy resort in the south, they ride in their new SUV with their 11-year-old son “Aziz” (Youssef Khemiri). The radio has news of a general strike and refugees fleeing strife in neighboring Libya, which just makes Fares concerned his business will lose the Italian market. Aziz interrupts to get them all singing along to an infectious pop song.

Until an ambush attacks a passing army patrol and strafes their car with bullets. Fares quickly maneuvers their car away, but Aziz was shot! His anguished parents try to revive him, and race to the nearest hospital. Aziz is in and out of surgery, and the updates from the doctors get more and more dire, so the parents take blood tests for donor compatibility. It isn’t just their bloodied shirts that make them look different from others in the hospital corridors – all the women wear hijabs.

Fares gets fresh clothes back at the hotel, and calls his sales manager to insist he handle the business instead: “I can’t leave my son like this!” While he’s gone, Dr. Dhaoui (Noomen Hamda) warns Meriem there’s a problem with their blood tests, and more tests need to be done. That problem sends her into shock and will reverberate throughout the rest of the film, as the country’s conservative traditions have discouraged organ donation and transplants. Fares angrily holds over his wife the country’s patriarchal laws, such that only he is the legal guardian, and he could take her to court if that would force a solution to save Aziz’s life. The boy is #19 on the transplant list, but he keeps having bloody setbacks that send the parents through paroxysms of exhausted despair, echoed in the handheld camera work.

While Meriem is frantically calling to find a partial liver donor, Fares is approached by a seemingly sympathetic observer, Mr. Chokri (Slah Msaddak), who looks and acts very much like Sydney Greenstreet. For a lot of cash, paid in advance, the businessman can supply what the frustrated father needs. The civil war in Libya has both made bodies more available and obtaining them more risky. We get upsetting glimpses of how humans are trafficked for profit.

Cinematographer Antoine Héberlé makes the most of Fares’ frenzied travels in the desert to and from Tataouine. From pitch black night to bright day, the striking landscape that inspired Star Wars doesn’t need special effects for wide sunrises and sunsets that first emphasizes Fares’ isolation, then calms his soul. Amine Bouhafa’s score uses stringed instruments thematically to capture Arab atmosphere without the usual clichés.

Writer/director Barsaoui emotionally leaves open whether modern technology can solve the crisis of this family, or this country, torn between the past and the future.


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
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My reviews have appeared on: Film-Forward; FF2 Media; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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