'Dear Son' ('Weldi'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes
Underpowered but haunting.

Tunisian writer-director Mohamed Ben Attia makes his Cannes debut with this somber family drama, which was co-produced by the Dardenne brothers.

According to U.N. figures, Tunisia has sent more young men to join the ranks of Islamic State than any other country. Premiering in Cannes today as part of the Directors' Fortnight sidebar, Tunisian writer-director Mohamed Ben Attia's Dear Son seeks to illuminate the complex emotional, psychological and economic forces behind these sensational headline numbers.

Inspired by real events, Ben Attia's minutely observed sophomore feature is less about jihadi fighters than the loved ones they leave behind, wrestling with guilt and grief, shame and blame. Co-produced by the Belgian masters of gritty social realism, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Dear Son is a thorough and thoughtful piece of work, admirably serious in intent but a little flat in execution. Solid festival fare, in other words, with a depressingly timely theme that could help steer it toward niche theatrical slots.

A Tunisian couple in late middle age, Riadh (Mohamed Dhrif) and Nazli (Mouna Mejri), are worried about their 19-year-old son, Sami (Zakaria Ben Ayed). Assailed by migraines, nausea and dark mood swings, Sami may just be anxious about his upcoming college entrance exams, or he could be sickening with something more serious. As Riadh prepares to retire from his job as a crane operator on the Tunis docks, times are hard and money is tight. But these doting parents still scrape together every penny they can to secure medical help for their only child.

One night, Sami disappears from the family apartment without warning. He leaves behind a curt note explaining that he has fled to Syria to join a jihadi group, unnamed in the film but clearly based on Islamic State. Riadh and Nazli are shattered, shellshocked, numb with disbelief. Eventually, a desperate Riadh borrows money from friends and blows the last of his meager retirement funds to turn detective, retracing Sami's journey to the border crossing between Turkey and Syria.

But his fruitless search only forces Riadh to confront some harsh home truths. At his lowest point, he dreams of a final meeting with Sami, who emphatically rejects everything his parents stand for, their impoverished ambitions and lives of quiet desperation. Riadh returns to Tunisia with the bitter knowledge that, faced with such limited hopes at home, his son's embrace of holy war and martyrdom on foreign soil makes a terrible kind of sense. As one marginal character observes: “They want to feel important, even if they have to die for it.”

Naturalistic and nuanced, almost to a fault, Dear Son lingers a little too long on its low-key domestic build-up before delivering its gut-wrenching twist. But after Sami's departure for Syria, the film takes a more philosophical trajectory, looking beyond the almost incidental jihadi subplot to chronicle the slow-motion impact of life-changing loss on a father, mother and their marriage. As the timeline extends, there are births and deaths, heavy blows and hard choices.

Implicit in Ben Attia's state-of-the-nation rumination is a critique of how the birthplace of the Arab Spring is now plagued by the twin horrors of Islamist terrorism and economic stagnation. But the picture he paints is not wholly fatalistic. Elevated by Dhrif's soulful, haunted performance and Omar Aloulou's spare, plaintive score, Dear Son finally moves beyond tragedy and becomes a quietly absorbing tribute to the power of human resilience.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Production companies: Nomadis Images, Les Films du Fleuve, Tanit Films
Cast: Mohamed Dhrif, Mouna Mejri, Zakaria Ben Ayed, Imen Cherif, Taylan Mintas
Director, screenwriter: Mohamed Ben Attia
Producers: Dora Bouchoucha, Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Nadim Cheikhrouha
Cinematographer: Frederic Noirhomme
Editor: Nadia Ben Rachid
Music: Omar Aloulou
Sales company: Luxbox
104 minutes