Tuesday 9 June 2015

Sydney Film Festival (24) - Villa Touma reviewed by Max Berghouse

Villa Touma (Suha Arraf, Palestine/Israel , 2014) is a completely beguiling film. This review is shorter than I may have contemplated but as one of the editor' s band of ageing contributors, I'm under some pressure to complete my review while the film is still current at the Sydney Film Festival.

Three sisters of uncertain age, the eldest and youngest unmarried and the middle sister, previously married but now in an unconsummated marriage to a much older man who dies very quickly. They are of, if not aristocratic background, certainly of the landed gentry. They live in something short of genteel poverty in Israeli occupied Ramallah in some timeframe of which I am not certain. More on that later. Their lives are disrupted by the arrival of their young niece from a Christian orphanage. To some considerable extent their lives of walled in security are disrupted by this young girl, Badia's arrival.

Reviews of the film appear to have been tepid and there has been some concentration on whether it is an Israeli film as Israel seems to have provided much of the finance; or whether it is a Palestinian film, that being the "nationality" of the director. Unfortunately practically everything to do with the relations of Israel and Palestine becomes political.

I was uncertain into what period the film was set. It appeared to be at the time of the "intifada" but that period was no earlier than the 1990s and the sisters, who frequently refer to the pre-war period of their family's prosperity, look far too young to have been, even youngsters in the 1930s. At the commencement of the film young Badia is taken to a new home in a European vehicle of the mid-1960s. All the sisters dress in  highly formalised style redolent of the 1940s and consistent with Arab taste at that time. They enforce similar restrictions on Badia, not only in dress, but in terms of custom  what was proper for young ladies in this pre-war period. They are determined to find her a husband but all their attempts are thwarted. Part of the problem is that many/most of the eligible Christian bachelors have left the country.

Without being in any way heavy, this is a film of sadness and want of fulfilment. If I had had more time I would have checked through Imperial Russian playwrights and similar period Nordic playwrights, to see what tale of woe may have been the progenitor of the story, but I can't think of anything. What small window of opportunity Badia brings to the household and family, we sense by the end of the film is lost and that the next-generation will be even more constrained.

I greatly enjoyed this film as regards the personal. The rigidities of behaviour and the almost sanctification of a prior age, are all defences against loss and depression. So is the furious domestic activity all the sisters engage in.

But I also think there is a political aspect which may possibly be my conjecture but I think is deliberate. The failure within the family of sisters to come to terms with a changed environment, in their case the loss of property, and status and position as a result of the creation of Israel, with definite parallels to their own loss of opportunity, is to some extent equivalent to the failure of the Palestinian people, to come to terms with their loss, and to make the best of it, even though that loss may be completely the fault of others and that they be innocent.

So far as I know "Palestine" under British mandate in the 1920s and 30s was increasingly prosperous and the Christian community, then much larger, did well when the mandatory power, Great Britain, viewed them with considerable favour. The overwhelming setting for the film is a house of this period and quite remarkably untouched from this more or less art deco period. The furniture although of quality, looks aged and there is little to indicate any degree of substantial modernity. There is a refrigerator, a television and turntable. But everything original remains, simply having been added to. I viewed this at the State Theatre which also has some quite indefinable scent of age and this added an extra piquancy to my viewing.

I found the whole movie very impressive, even though as a male, it is clearly a woman's film. Not merely entertaining, I think it is impressive indeed.

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