Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 39 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 3.5
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other
This gem of a film centering on four women in the midst of culture clash was written and directed by Cherien Dabis, who due to her Palestinian father and Jordanian mother has experienced her share of tension between diverse cultures. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, she grew up in a small Ohio town where her father was a doctor. She reports that she tried to fit in as a child, but when the first Gulf War began in 1991, she and her family endured anti-Arab hostility from neighbors, some of her father’s patients even leaving him.
There are three daughters and a mother in her film, which was shot in Jordan. May (Cherien Dabis) is a successful New York City writer whose book exploring the background of Arab proverbs has made her known to the book reading public in her native country as well as among New York literati. She is returning to Amman to finalize wedding plans with the family of her fiancé Ziad (Alexander Siddig), a Muslim scholar teaching at an American university. Her sisters, also Americanized, meet her at the airport, hugging each other joyfully. Fun loving Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and Tomboy Dalia (Alia Shawkat) have also been away from home, having taken a month off to return for the reunion.
The film is divided into sections that are introduced by Arab proverbs, no doubt referencing May’s book. This section’s proverb, “Every person is a child at home,” sets us up for meeting the mother Nadine (Hiam Abbass). The latter welcomes May, but her disapproval of her daughter marrying a Muslim soon surfaces. She is an evangelical Christian, declaring, “Marrying outside your religion…never works.” She is determined not to attend the ceremony. May becomes especially concerned when she discovers her mother untying the knots of a series of ropes tied together. The “Knowledge Rope” is based on a popular superstition that believes that if one unties all of its knots, the ties between a couple unfit for each other will be broken up.
Ziad’s mother is fine with the upcoming marriage, sparing no expense. However May herself is feeling uneasy about it because she and Ziad had a serious argument just before she had left New York, and he has been less than attentive in keeping in contact by cell phone. A chance meeting at a nightspot with the friendly adventure guide Karim (Elie Mitri) no doubt adds to her feeling of unsettlement. The two even go out together, one night Karim sharing with her a favorite spot for observing the majestic beauty of the desert.
Events quickly pile up over the next few days. The girls’ father Edward (Bill Pullman), estranged from the family since he divorced Nadine and married a younger Indian woman (Ritu Singh Pande), seeks reconciliation, something that two of the sisters at first resist. May, out jogging and clad in running tights, is ogled by a carload of lustful males. The sisters joke about Muslim women all covered up in public, and the lingerie they purchase at the mall would shock their Muslim neighbors. Yasmine and Dalia agree to attend a church with Mom, not for religious reasons, but in the hope of connecting their attractive mother with a suitable man, May waiting outside in their car. The sisters, traveling to the Dead Sea resort for a bachelorette outing, find themselves arguing loudly in public. It is here that the film’s first hints of a larger conflict are introduced. While swimming in the water, one of them observes that they could swim to the West Bank shore. She is brought up short by May, stating that the Israelis have placed mines in the water. And then when they loudly argue beside the swimming pool, a jet fighter plane flies over, drowning out their words, forcibly making them aware that their conflict is so much smaller than the regional one.
The plot at times becomes a bit melodramatic, with all four women harboring secrets that are not revealed until the last act of the film. A couple of these secrets are quite shocking. Two more of the sayings that introduce the segments are insightful– “Love is an endless act of forgiveness” and “There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscious.” I was worried by the description of some reviewers’ of the mother as “an intolerant Christian” that we would be subjected to another movie stereotype of Christians, but this is not the case. Nadine is indeed being narrow minded in her intention to boycott May’s wedding, but this is also motivated by her own bad experience with her unfaithful husband. Her secularist daughters are unable to see that she has found comfort and support in her faith and in the small congregation. The film leaves some issues unresolved, except for May’s decision concerning the wedding. Each person, including the caddish father, arrives at a measure of maturity that promises a brighter future. Although the daughters will probably continue to resist the faith of their mother, we might hope that one day they might better understand its values and benefits.
This small but worthy film has attracted little attention, so you might have to seek it out, eventually perhaps on the Internet. Although there are a few subtitles for the few times that Arabic is spoken, the family converses mainly in English, surely a relief for those challenged by subtitles. The film transports its fortunate viewers into a different country and culture. I am looking forward to watching the filmmaker’s earlier film Amreeka.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Oct. 2014 issue of VP.