Al Qods Fee Yom Akhar
starring Clara Khoury, Khalifa Natour, Ismael Dabbag, Walid Abed Elsalam
screenplay by Liana Badr, Ihab Lamey
directed by Hany Abu-Assad
starring Marina Golbahari, Arif Herati, Zubaida Sahar, Gol Rahman Ghorbandi
written and directed by Siddiq Barmak
by Walter Chaw About thirty minutes into Hany Abu-Assad's Rana's Wedding (Al Qods Fee Yom Akhar), an old Palestinian man sets a small table down outside his building in Israeli-occupied Jerusalem, places a typewriter on top of it, and watches as Rana (Clara Khoury) is almost shot by an Israeli patrol when her cell phone is briefly mistaken for a revolver. The moment isn't commented upon, and the next scene finds her wondering, as she's wondered for the first parts of the film, where her true love is on this the day that her father demands that she marry one of the suitors he's approved for her or leave for Egypt to continue her schooling. The deadline sends Rana careening across the country in an increasingly complex quest to assemble the right people together to allow her to marry the man that she loves--the one who "understands me, and puts up with me when I'm angry." The line is funny as the sentiment is familiar--it's a grace note in a picture that somehow cloaks its ferocity in a sheath of gentility. Make no mistake that not commenting on the Israeli/Palestinian situation is not the same as avoiding the Israeli/Palestinian situation; as political films go, Rana's Wedding is high among the films finding release election year 2004 (Osama, The Fog of War, Broken Wings).
At its heart of hearts, Abu-Assad's tale of a young woman chasing her bliss in a war zone is an absurdist horror film, a diary on how to continue in the midst of untenable scenarios with a scene scored by an insistent bulldozer gleaning the tone, note-perfect, of the existentially terrifying opening of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The image of a woman transgressing, crossing lines and violating accepted borders, is one generally reserved for horror films in the slasher sub-genre--the tension that we feel as Rana leaves her home to travel across the sometimes-literal minefield of her battle-worn hometown has precedent, as does the sympathy we develop for the heroine of that breed of film. A romance at its core, Rana's Wedding plays like a daylight version of Martin Scorsese's After Hours: the hero in search of love in an increasingly surreal cityscape, strolling through the crossfire of rocks and bullets like Kilgore at an Apocalypse Now beach on her way to a bright future turning dark.
When Rana finds her lover Khalil (Khalifa Natour) at the theatre where he's a director, they share a moment on a stage that turns out to be a moment on stage, and thus Rana's Wedding makes itself inward-twisting. Its plot, the timer put on events (get married by 4:00pm or forever hold your peace), suddenly takes on the burden of metaphor, a marriage in some haste and under duress the only possibility to avoid an eternity of dissatisfaction and strife. The picture isn't overtly political, except that it's a morality play set in one of the most politically charged places in the world, that all of its characters represent an aspect of the Palestinian point-of-view (from pride to despair to hopefulness), and that it only makes sense textually or subtextually as a fever dream of decay and the kind of helpless laughter of the condemned. An interesting companion piece to Nir Bergman's own domestic apocalypse Broken Wings (another piece that finds eloquence in a stalled car being pushed uphill), with that film set in a Haifa falling down across the barbed wire, Rana's Wedding is a sharp, expert look into the life of a character so well articulated, so clearly a product of our collective kingdom of frustration and rubble, that she can't help but give voice to a universal howl.
Opening with a sea of burka-clad protestors lobbying for the right to work under Afghanistan's deposed Taliban regime, Siddiq Barmak's Osama works the opposite effect, making of recent history science-fiction--the urge, however poignant, ever present to marvel in disbelief that this is planet Earth. The picture fails the empathy test, the voluminous praise it's garnered split generally between folks pounding the splintered pulpit of the Taliban's never-in-dispute evil or making patronizing and defensive statements for theoretical audiences too stupid to know already that for as bizarre as it all seems (the idea of Barmak the stylistic myth-maker finds its birth here), it did indeed all happen. Taking that for granted, what does Osama do but perpetuate common knowledge? Rather than offer insight, it exists as a snapshot designed to be clucked over, wagged, and have heads shaken solemnly and in concert like one of the film's admittedly stunning frames of the devout in devotion and the downtrodden in revolt.
In detailing an old story about a girl (Marina Golbahari) who dresses as a boy to find work and support her family, the picture never fails to feel superior to its subject matter. Fuelled by justifiable outrage, Osama driven by the fact that it's the first Afghani production post-Taliban and not much more--its story stumbling along in a way that assails the injustices of the demolished culture while managing to paint its heroes as awkward, emotionless playing pieces carefully posed in the martyr attitude and displaying next to no animal cunning in carrying off their ruse. Failing to cover her ankles, to play the scene, to lower her voice despite multiple entreaties to do so, the girl dubbed "Osama" is flat and beyond the basic strictures of human decency, wholly unsympathetic. We care in an oblique sort of way that she's in this situation in the way that we would care about any girl in this situation--we just couldn't care less about her.
The failure to provide a conduit into the society makes of Osama an unpleasant little travelogue, no question, but something well short of sociology or even narrative: it's less a movie than a flat condemnation--the danger of such of thing, of course, that it gives us the opportunity to nod sagely at the savage backwardness of Arabs and feel vindicated in the mad incongruity of popular foreign policies advocating war with "the other" for the sake of the innocents. Were this film made by anyone but an Afghani director, it would be branded racist and hysterical. It's been considered stirring and revelatory as is, but I think otherwise. Originally published: April 9, 2004.