THE situation in the Middle East, it's been said, is such a confounding Gordian knot that its demands for justice exceed the human capacity to administer justice. No film demonstrates that dilemma better than the expressive "The Syrian Bride," a wedding narrative laced with more Kafkaesque moments than romantic joy.
Directed by Israeli Eran Riklis from a script he co-wrote with Palestinian-Israeli Suha Arraf, this is an emotional work that at times has the tension of a thriller, a film that uses a large number of characters to weave together personal, political and cultural issues without ever seeming arbitrary or forced.
It can do this in part because it is set in a particularly complex and difficult locale, the village of Majdal Shams, the largest Druse settlement in the Golan Heights. That area, taken from Syria by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, is home to many Druse, Arabic speakers who feel an allegiance to Syria and have a religion that is related to Islam but retains its own particular customs and culture.
To live in that area and marry someone from Syria is a particularly cumbersome and fraught endeavor. The wedding itself, overseen by the Red Cross, has to take place in a no-man's land between Israeli and Syrian checkpoints. And once the wedding is over and the bride moves to Syria, she is not allowed to return to her birthplace and won't ever see her family again.
With this situation as a base, "The Syrian Bride" layers in all manner of personal tensions, pressures, resentments and difficulties as well as the kind of conflicting societal proscriptions and loyalties that exist with particular intensity in that part of the world.
"The Syrian Bride" can do so much without breaking stride because it is written, directed and acted with real compassion and sympathy for the humanity of its characters, no matter who they are or on what side of these multiple issues they turn out to be.
The film opens with an early morning close-up of a woman with a worried look on her face. Her name is Amal (Hiam Abbass) and she has more than enough to be worried about.
Her younger sister Mona (Clara Khoury) is supposed to be married on this day at the border to a Syrian man she's never met. While Mona worries about going "from one jail to another," Amal is aghast at the reality of never being able to see her beloved sister again.
Also problematic is the situation with the women's father, Hammed (Makram J. Khoury). A pro-Syrian community leader, he has been jailed by the Israelis and, although out on parole, is forbidden to go to the border where the wedding is to take place.
Hammed's two sons also present challenges. Marwan (Ashraf Barhoum) is a hustler always waiting for his big deal to come through, but Hattem (Eyad Sheety) is the bigger difficulty. Estranged from his father because he left the community and married a Russian woman, he is returning home for the first time in eight years and bringing his wife and son.
Amal also has troubles right in her own home. One of her daughters is flirting with a boy who has a questionable background, and her husband, Amin (Adnan Trabshi, the film's only Druse actor), is troubled by Amal's refusal to play the subservient role that community tradition demands.
As if this weren't complex enough, the hour set for the wedding approaches and more complications arise, involving the Red Cross, Syrian and Israeli border troops and the Israeli police. Director Riklis handles all these situations and points of view beautifully, never letting us forget the seriousness of the situation, even as its preposterous difficulties make us want to laugh in spite of ourselves.
While "The Syrian Bride" deals with one family's experience, its thesis is that nothing is easy in a part of the world where geopolitical issues play out in ordinary people's lives. There are no villains here except for inhumane political regulations and narrow societal prohibitions, but there is hope -- hope that the strength of humanity in general and women in particular will end up making a difference. Wouldn't it be wonderful if they did.
`The Syrian Bride'
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Koch Lorber Films release. Director Eran Riklis. Producers Bettina Brokemper, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Eran Riklis, Michael Eckelt. Screenplay Suha Arraf, Eran Riklis. Director of photography Michael Wiesweg. Editor Tova Ascher. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
In selected theaters.