'Noura's Dream' ('Noura Tehlam'): Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
A Tunisian divorce drama champions a woman’s right to happiness.

Hinde Boujemaa’s drama stars Hind Sabri as a mother of three torn between her thieving husband and an impulsive lover.

In Tunisia, where adultery is a crime and adulterers can go to jail for five years, divorce can be a violent affair poisoned by male ideas of honor, and the stakes are high for all concerned. Noura’s Dream (Noura Tehlam) is set in a working-class environment unusual in Tunisian cinema, and on first sight it feels more related to a Ken Loach tale of struggle on multiple levels than, say, the psychological and legal complexities of a civilized modern smash-up like Marriage Story. Yet on closer inspection, the bottom line is still the clash of a couple’s values and personalities.

More than the story itself, what Western audiences will relate to is the dilemma of a woman who fights hard for her own emotional and sexual happiness. In her 2012 documentary It Was Better Tomorrow, director Hinde Boujemaa investigated a single mother’s struggles in the wake of the Arab Spring; here she returns to the theme of a woman’s right to freedom and choice in dire circumstances. The film’s fresh, open-minded approach supports a married woman with a lover, offering a complex moral perspective within a realistic story.

Noura is no romantic Madame Bovary; she’s the down-to-earth mother of three who works overtime in a hospital laundry room to keep a roof over their heads, while her errant husband Jamel (Lotfi Abdelli) cools his heels in prison. Playing her with enormous vitality and verve, a glammed-down Hind Sabri (sometimes spelled "Hend Sabry") shows why she’s one of the most admired stars in Arab cinema. (Attesting to her growing reputation, at Venice this year she became the first Arab actress to receive the Starlight Cinema Award for her roles in art house films like The Yacoubian Building and Asmaa.)

In an early scene, Noura faces down a woman in an office, probably a pro bono divorce lawyer, who first exclaims over how many times her husband has been arrested for robbery and fraud, then immediately tries to make Noura feel guilty about destabilizing her kids’ home life for the sake of a man who, she suggests, is just using her. But Noura is having none of that. While Jamel has been in prison, she has fallen in love with winsome garage mechanic Lassaad (Hakim Boumassoudi) and they have decided to marry.

Despite his impatience and short temper, he seems like a nice guy and appears to really care about her. Even Noura’s three well-adjusted kids, all of school age, like “Uncle Lassaad.” She has initiated divorce proceedings from the abusive Jamel and in four days her divorce will be final and they can live together, without fear. Then disaster strikes: Jamel is released from prison without warning and suddenly returns home. Adding to the drama of these scenes, Lassaad is beside himself with jealousy and Noura can’t find the right moment to tell her husband she’s divorcing him. When Jamel does find out, the violent side of his character emerges and all hell breaks loose. His revenge on Lassaad and Noura is of the cruel and unusual variety.

Boujemaa and her actors are at their best in a dynamic scene at the police station where Jamel, Noura and Lassaad are forced into a confrontation, first in front of a tough, shouting cop and then before the sly, corrupt Hamadi (Jamel Sassi). No one present can tell the truth about their tangled relations, and the tension builds nicely in all directions.

Cleverly, Jamel is not presented as all bad (he does show a great deal of affection for his kids, though his fiery temper sometimes leaves them quailing, and he seems to love Noura). Nor is Lassaad a knight in shining armor who is going to take her out of poverty and accept any indignity that comes his way. He, too, is depicted as a flawed human being, which makes the ending more realistic.

Production companies: Propaganda Productions, Eklektic Productions, Les Film de l’Apres-midiCast: Hind Sabri, Lotfi Abdelli, Hakim Boumassaoudi, Belhassen Harbaoui, Ikbal Harbaoui, Jamel Sassi
Director: Hinde Boujemaa
Screenwriters: Hinde Boujemaa, Laurent Brandenbourger
Producer: Imed Marzouk
Co-producers: Francois d’Artemare, Tatjana Kozar
Director of photography: Martin Rit
Production designer: Rauf Helioui
Costume designer: Salah Barka
Editor: Nicolas Rumpl
Venue: El Gouna Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Wild Bunch

90 minutes