The Source (La Source des femmes): Cannes 2011 Review

Lively and saccharine Maghreb dramedy has obvious drawing power.

Radu Mihaileanu's take on Arab female empowerment polarizes Cannes viewers

CANNES -- Romanian-born filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu offers up another certifiably crowd-pleasing slice of world cinema in The Source (La Source des Femmes), a modern-day fable exploring female empowerment in the Arab world. Never one for subtlety, the writer-director tosses everything he can into this two-hour-plus humanist couscous, stirring in a mix of songs, sentiments and socio-religious questions set beneath breathtaking North African landscapes, and carried by a strong central performance from actress Leila Bekhti. Like his previous films, The Source boasts an Arthouse for Beginners appeal that could reach broad audiences beyond Europe.

A mixed reaction at the first Cannes press screening is telling of how Mihaileanu (The Concert, Live and Become) tends to split viewers, with some appreciating his heartwarming (and often tear-jerking) cross-cultural tales, and others wondering whether he deserves the auteur status of the Official Selection’s usual suspects.

Certainly, the fact that the script (co-written with collaborator Alain-Michel Blanc) deals with such a timely subject matter as women and Islam will make the film a talking point when EuropaCorp releases it in France this coming November. Still, despite what can be deemed a rather earnest call for females to rise up and (literally) take off the veil, there’s an unwieldy, bordering-on-kitsch side to Mihaileanu’s storytelling here, and the mix of colorful local customs and swelling, Middle East-influenced scoring (by Armand Amar, Outside the Law) tends to walk the line between a soap opera and an advertisement for Royal Air Morocco.

At its best when it concentrates on solid acting from a talented cast toplined by rising star Bekhti (All that Glitters), the film presents a universally simplistic parable set in an unnamed contemporary Maghreb village, whose women decide they no longer want to fetch water from a nearby well while their men sit around and watch. Given that Leila (Bekhti), Loubna (Hafsia Herzi) and the loud mouth, Mother Rifle (Biyouna), have very little persuasion over the macho, Koran-quoting males who control the remote enclave, they resort to the Power of the P, which in due course drives their husbands mad with sexual starvation.

As an outsider married to the town’s sole intellectual, Sami (Israeli actor Saleh Bakri, The Time that Remains), Lelia suffers the wrath of an evil mother-in-law and other traditionalists who believe a wife’s place is beside the hearth and nowhere else. When an old flame (Malek Akhmiss) pops up unannounced, he drives a wedge between Sami and Lelia that spills over into the greater struggle for the townswomen to have their way at all costs, leading up to a final, free-spirited battle pitting feminist yearnings against Muslim mores.

Trying to hold this mixed bag together is not always easy, and rather than building a steady dramatic arc, Mihaileanu piles on a succession of scenes, some which delight through their humor and energy, others which disappoint through schmaltzy emotions and a tendency towards dialogue in which every character wears their heart on their djellaba. Thus, a subplot involving the illiterate Loubna’s love for a local boy has the sophistication level of an after-school movie, while a few scenes where the women sing caustic songs (one to a group of ignorant tourists) provide an entertaining example of how they can wage war on their own terms.

Between the vivid, mountainous backdrop and array of radiant costumes, director of photography Glynn Speeckaert (In the Beginning) has plenty of eye-candy to capture with his constantly roving camera, and the attractive imagery helps some of the more cloying medicine go down easily. That, and the sheer vitality of all the players – including ever-amusing Algerian actress Biyouna (Viva Algeria) – manage to give Mihaileanu’s vision a lure that rises above and beyond his more facile, and some would say naive, approach to an issue that one wishes could be solved so smoothly.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Official Selection (Un Certain Regard)

Director: Radu Mihaileanu
Screenwriters: Radu Mihaileanu, Alain-Michel Blanc
Producers: Denis Carot, Marie Masmonteil, Radu Mihaileanu
Director of photography: Glynn Speeckaert
Production designer: Christian Niculescu
Costume designer: Viorica Petrovici
Editor: Ludo Troch
Music: Armand Amar
No rating, 137 minutes