'Villa Touma': Venice Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
An old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned way limits the insight and appeal of a film about three spinsters belonging to Ramallah's Christian aristocracy

Palestinian screenwriter Suha Arraf marshals an all-female cast for her directing debut

Suha Arraf, who co-wrote the screenplays for Eran Riklis' charming films The Syrian Bride and The Lemon Tree, makes her directing debut with an inexplicably stodgy tale about a trio of Christian Palestinian sisters who have sunk into genteel poverty, and whose secluded lives are shaken up when they take in an orphaned niece. Unfortunately, Villa Touma is as stylistically outmoded as the sisters’ clothing, hairstyles and superior attitude, and its simple storytelling, almost like a fairy tale one has heard many times, is unlikely to entertain anyone outside generous festival audiences. Nevertheless, it's a welcome change to see a film about Palestine that doesn't directly deal with the war, and that should help it find supporters.

Despite majority Israeli funding and an Israeli crew, this is a very Palestinian story told from a feminine viewpoint. The action takes place in a rambling old stone house in Ramallah; the time is probably the present, but it could be any time after the 1967 war with Israel, when the Touma family lost its money and status along with several of its family members. These include the parents of Badia (Maria Zreik), who has grown up in a Catholic orphanage until she comes to live with her three aunts in Villa Touma.

Under the iron fist of the eldest sister, Juliette (Nisreen Faour, Amreeka), the house is run with military discipline and wrapped in a time warp and aura of deathly gloom. The other sisters are the bitter widow Violette (Ula Tabari, Chronicle of a Disappearance) and the still-lovely Antoinette (Cherien Dabis, May in the Summer.) All three have had romantic misadventures in the past and have shut themselves away in Villa Touma to avoid acknowledging their defeat, and perhaps to avoid unnecessary contact with the occupied city. When beautiful 18-year-old Badia arrives, their long-repressed feelings are forced out in the open.

Badia's mother was Muslim, making them the black sheep of the aristo Christian family, and Juliette is anxious to dispose of the girl. Deciding she needs a husband fast, the sisters embark on a comical campaign, beginning with French and piano lessons to turn her into a lady. Their goal-oriented socializing in search of eligible bachelors at Sunday mass, weddings and funerals offers broad humor. Naturally, all these plans backfire, and the tale ends with a grotesque twist that almost seems like a joke in poor taste.

No doubt the actresses are talented, but here the acting seems purposely wooden, as though Arraf was filming a very formal stage play full of too much arch dialogue. They seem too overwhelmed by their heavy costumes, hairstyles and makeup which they have obviously never worn before and which are meant to be humorous. Worst of all, there is no insight into these characters who never seem like real people, and thus the audience sheds no tears when things go very wrong.

The film springs to life in a few rare moments of spontaneity, notably when Badia falls for a handsome wedding singer from a refugee camp and time stands still as their eyes meet. Since he’s a Muslim, and thus unacceptable marriage material for the upper-class sisters, the affair seems doomed from the start.

Production companies: Bailasan Productions, Israel Film Fund, Ministry of Economy's Small Business Administration, National Lottery
Cast: Nisreen Faour, Ula Tabari, Cherien Dabis, Maria Zreik
Director-Screenwriter: Suha Arraf
Producer: Suha Arraf
Director of photography: Yaron Scharf
Production designer: Eytan Levy
Costume designer: Hamada Atallah
Editor: Arik Lahav-Leibovich
Music: Boaz Schory
No rating, 88 minutes