'Between Heaven and Earth': Film Review

Courtesy of Ustura Films
A road movie veers into political mystery.

While trying to divorce, a young Palestinian couple uncovers an unwelcome surprise from the past in Najwa Najjar’s third film.

Middle East politics, which formed the backdrop to director Najwa Najjar’s two previous films Pomegranates and Myrrh and Eyes of a Thief, move a step farther into the foreground in her third feature, Between Heaven and Earth. The story of a handsome middle-class Palestinian couple who have decided to divorce after five years of marriage is complicated by their need to obtain documents for an Israeli court. Their travels from the West Bank to the Golan Heights unearth a lot of painful backstory as well as a clearer view of their feelings for each other.

Najjar’s screenplay, which won the Naguib Mahfouz Award at the Cairo International Film Festival, is structured as a classic road movie, yet the politically charged mystery that Salma and Tamer set out to solve overshadows it as the dominant genre. Though the unfolding of their investigation is fluid enough, the solution is complex and confusing. Asking the viewer to put the pieces together during a climactic confrontation scene is asking a lot, and could limit its appeal to festival audiences.

However, the young actors Mouna Hawa (as Salma) and Firas Nassar (as Tamer) are confident and sure-footed in depicting their ever-evolving relationship, which keeps the audience on their side. As atypical as it is for a film to show middle-class Palestinians inhabiting a fashionable modern house with a swimming pool and driving a chic vintage Merc, it is probably even more of an eye-opener to find that contemporary gender equality issues underlie and undermine their relationship. In this regard Hawa and Nassar are pretty evenly matched and they are both easy to empathize with.

The old Mercedes plays a key role as they start their journey from Ramallah in the West Bank to Israel, where they will apply for a civil divorce. The car has yellow Israeli plates, apparently because it belonged to Salma’s father. Only she is authorized to drive the car once they leave Palestinian territory. This legal quibble immediately puts Tamer at a disadvantage, which he bridges by insisting he’ll drive to the border checkpoint, where Salma takes the wheel and assumes its symbolic power.

Possessing a Palestinian ID and a 72-hour entry permit, this is Tamer’s first time in Israel and he is almost turned back by the border guards. When they finally get to the divorce court, the clerk demands they remedy a computer anomaly that says Tamer’s father lived at a different address and was married to a Jewish woman named Hagar, which Tamer flatly denies. The couple has no choice but to set off and try to prove who Tamer’s father is.

Both their fathers were once prominent, politically committed Palestinian activists. Tamer’s Dad was assassinated many years ago in Beirut, while Salma’s is still living in Israel, lost in memories of his country's past. Najjar is skillful in exposing the absurdities — bureaucratic, political and existential — of the Israelis’ treatment of Palestinians.

She is also good at slowly doling out clues to the mystery of Tamer’s parentage, which begin with a visit to Hagar’s official son “Tamir.” However, the complicated mystery that involves two mothers, two sons and two generations of Palestinian resistance unravels rather clumsily by the end.

Another weak point is the appearance of colorful but peripheral characters whom the couple encounter on their way. While a hospitable Syrian refugee who lives in her van on the Golan Heights “only one hour from the best restaurant in Damascus” might pass as a timely reminder of the war in Syria, what to say of a bickering French Jewish couple who seem thrown in for comic relief, or a spacey Sufi musician whose only role seems to be making Tamer jealous?

Hawa, who played the hard-partying lawyer in Maysaloun Hamoud’s fiesty In Between, is back as the independent, hardhearted heroine, though it’s obvious she’ll eventually see the deeper merits of the man she wants to make her ex. For his part, Nasser deals with the stressful uncertainty of his origins and the threatened breakup with admirable sangfroid and a general show of respect for Salma.  

The Palestine-Iceland-Luxembourg co-prod makes excellent use of locations that carve a trail from Jericho to Haifa and include several historically significant Christian Palestinian villages. Iqrit, a village whose inhabitants were expelled by Israeli forces in 1948, forms an integral part of the story.

Icelandic DP Tomas Tomasson brings a fresh eye to the visuals, which are not all dust and white stone but include less familiar perspectives. A standout among the tech credits is the fine soundtrack by Egyptian composer Tamer Karawan and the inclusion of a wide variety of melodious, contemporary Arab songs.

Production companies: Oktober Productions, Paul Thiltges Productions, Ustura Films
Cast: Mouna Hawa, Firas Nassar, Faris Husari, Adeeb Safadi, Omar Jabali, Izz Jabari, Elham Khleifi
Director-screenwriter: Najwa Najjar
Producer: Hani E. Kort
Co-producers: Adrien Chef, Paul Thiltges, Fahad Falur Jabali, Eggert Ketilsson, Elisabet Ronaldsdottir
Director of photography: Tomas Tomasson
Production designer: Christina Schaffer
Costume designer: Sherin Batshon
Editors: Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, Amine Jaber
Music: Tamer Karawan
Casting: Emile Saba
Venue: Cairo International Film Festival
92 minutes