'Hedi': Berlin Review

'Hedi' still - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival
Quietly satisfying.

Vistas of personal freedom suddenly open up in a bittersweet Tunisian love story.

A young Tunisian man is torn between a conventional marriage and following his creative star in Hedi, a sensitively crafted first feature by Mohamed Ben Attia. Though pleasingly rooted in its time and place, it’s an easily accessible story that has been told in many countries. Still, the stakes are higher and more dramatic when the culture is so sharply divided between old and new, and its glimpses into contemporary sexual mores can be startling. Quiet but pungent and featuring vibrant performances, it offers further evidence that the rebirth of Tunisian cinema is underway, and after its bow in Berlin competition it should find welcoming art film slots.

For all the headline interest in the Arab world, films like Hedi sidestep war, politics and hijabs to show that life goes on as planned for the great majority of people. Yet after the Arab Spring that overthrew president Ben Ali, something has changed, a new wind is blowing, and themes of personal choice and responsibility figure prominently. Like Fares Naanaa’s recent tale about a couple who lose their child, Borders of Heaven, it subtly reveals this new zeitgeist by way of intimate relationships. Today, the path dictated by religion, tradition and family is no longer so obvious, especially for those starting out in life.

As the film opens, Hedi (hypnotically played with repressed tension by newcomer Majd Mastoura) is about to get married. Khedija (Omnia Ben Ghali), his bride-to-be, is a pretty girl from a middle-class background like his own. She’s so chaperoned that they can only stage fleeting meetings in his car, and after a lengthy engagement they barely know each other. They’re both nice kids, but there’s a sense they're going through the motions and doing what they’re expected to do without any feeling of excitement, much less love.

Of far greater weight in Hedi’s life is his domineering, emotionally manipulative mom, Baya (Sabah Bouzouita), who gets a laugh in her first appearance, putting on the dog for her in-laws while subtly controlling everyone in the room. She praises her successful son Ahmed, who has made a good life for himself in France, while putting down Hedi’s interest in drawing. In reality, his complex comic book art is the only outlet he has for his individuality, in which he takes refuge and where he finds a modicum of freedom.

Because location plays such a big part in the story, it’s refreshing to find the family is from the historic Islamic city of Kairouan, while much of the action takes place in dusty towns and the big beach resorts on the coast, which have been drained of tourists after last year’s deadly terrorist assault in Sousse.

The wide open spaces of rural Tunisia offer the boy another escape from his oppressive mother. Thanks to his job as a traveling Peugeot salesman, he jumps behind the wheel with the carefree assurance of a teenager. The economy is in the dumps and car sales are nil, but at least it gives him the chance to move around. He spends nights in empty hotels, yet the lonely life seems to suit him. In a resort hotel in Mahdia he meets Rim (Rym Messaoud), one of the activity directors who entertain the handful of guests still around. She is 30, five years his senior, spontaneous and unrepressed. They quickly end up in bed and a new world opens up for Hedi. As his marriage draws closer and closer, his heart takes wing in quite another direction.

The force of this character-driven story depends on precision acting, and all hands turn in convincing performances. Attia directs his cast with measured maturity, reigning in Mastoura until the climactic scenes. To watch this sphinx-like young actor face down his mother and older brother for the first time in his life is as liberating an experience for the audience as for Hedi.

The role tradition plays is handled with interesting ambiguity. On the one hand, there’s no doubt that it suffocates the lives of the characters when it is pure mindless social and family obligation. At one point, the male members of the bridal party go over to the bride’s house in a ceremony where the heads of family ominously promise to “seal our children’s fates.”

But later in the film, a dance sequence shows a festive group (including Hedi and Rim) losing their inhibitions as they joyously follow the rhythm of traditional Tunisian music. Here as elsewhere, the exuberance of a hand-held camera underlines the dancers’ freedom of movement. Cinematographer Frederic Noirhomme’s elegant lighting and slightly off-beat framing lends a modern touch, while musical accompaniment by Omar Aloulou is original and soothing in the background.

Production companies: Nomadis Images, Les Films du Fleuve, Tanit Films

Cast:  Majd Mastoura, Rym Ben Messaoud, Sabah Bouzouita, Omnia Ben Ghali, Kakim Boumessaoudi, Arwa Ben Smail

Director, screenwriter: Mohamed Ben Attia

Producer: Doris Bouchoucha Fourati

Co-producers: Jean Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Nadim Cheikhrouha

Executive producers: Lina Chaabane Menzli, Delphine Tomson

Director of photography: Frederic Noirhomme

Production designer: Mohammed Denguezli

Costume designer: Nedra Gribaa

Editors: Azza Chaabouni, Ghalya Lacroix, Hafedh Laaridhi

Music: Omar Aloulou

World sales: Luxbox

No rating, 88 minutes