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It’s a rare treat to find a first feature as deep and involving as director Fares Naanaa’s delicately told, beautifully acted Borders of Heaven (Chbabek El Jenna). The loss of a beloved child brings the world caving in on a young Tunisian couple, whose love for each other seems unable to weather the storm of tragedy. What could have been a tearful melodrama for a wide audience, however, turns into a profound reflection on human relations in their many shades. Anissa Daoud and Lotfi Abdelli are both superb (the latter won the best actor award following the film’s premiere in Dubai). Overall, it’s a striking art-house title from a country that has fallen off festival charts in recent years.
Produced by Habib Attia, the all-Tunisian entry, far from catering to Western tastes or the current clamor for topical films about Islam and extremism, is above all a timeless love story that could take place anywhere. In fact, it plays out against the background of a peaceful country and quiet, middle-class people. Sara (Daoud) sings in a choir for the sheer pleasure of using her beautiful voice, and Sami (Abdelli) is an architect. He is currently at work on a mosque, apparently on a deferred salary, which is slowing them down economically. In a tasteful but un-prudish bedroom scene, the couple talks about having a second child and moving to a new home.
Their 7-year-old daughter is Daddy’s pride and joy, and what happens to her in the opening scene on a sunny beach, while the grown-ups picnic and gossip, is never explicitly revealed. Naanaa relies on the audience being smart enough to pick up visual clues to the tragedy off-screen: long close-ups of the little girl, the adults’ distraction, a subtle air of foreboding. However, many scenes go by before one feels certain she is out of the picture.
Abolishing a definite time frame, Naanaa and co-writer Nadia Khammari play on waves of emotion and the changing relationship between husband and wife. Heartbroken and guilt-ridden, Sami drowns his sorrows in drink and becomes belligerent towards Sara. She responds by retreating into herself and taking refuge in her compassionate family. The turning point comes when Sami is given an unexpected chance to confront his own father, in a strange, rather magical sequence set in the far south of the country. The impact of this meeting on Sami is profound, and though not directly related to his problems, it clearly gives him a new perspective on fatherhood.
Abdelli, who memorably played a would-be Islamic terrorist in Making Of, is electrifying as the bereaved father who loses his emotional balance. But as strong as he is, the film really belongs to the French-Tunisian actress and writer Daoud (Tender is the Wolf), who portrays Sara’s courageous determination to rise above despair with delicate precision. Though a very modern woman, she twice dons a hijab to pray in her room, and no comment is needed for these scenes to be understood as intended. Even if there is no particular emphasis on religion, a sense of family and community is a strongly felt background presence. Sara’s heavenly voice singing a lullaby brings thrilling, deeply affecting emotional closure to the story, while Sami’s encounter with his father does not.
Although likely low-budget, Borders is marked by its technical confidence, especially Sofian El Fani’s intimate and revealing up-close camerawork and Azza Chaabouni and Pascale Chavance’s fluid editing that reaches back and forth in time.
Production companies: Cinetelefilms in association with ICFLIX
Cast: Lotfi Abdelli, Anissa Daoud, Mouna Noureddine, Sophie Ghodhbane, Chekra Rammeh, Issa Harrath, Martine Gafsi, Abdelghani Ben Tara, Aymen Mabrouk
Director: Fares Naanaa
Screenwriters: Fares Naanaa, Nadia Khammari
Producer: Habib Attia
Director of photography: Sofian El Fani
Production designer: Kais Rostom
Editors: Azza Chaabouni, Pascale Chavance
Music: Kais Sellami
Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Muhr Feature)
Not rated, 84 minutes.
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