Month: November, 2020

A Son

Verdict: A quietly powerful triumph from a fresh voice in Arab cinema.

The idylls of a family holiday are transformed into a screaming nightmare in Tunisian writer/director Mehdi Barsaoui’s debut feature. His delicately crafted but intensely powerful film is as much a family drama as it is a high-pitched primal cry and wastes little time planting you smack-bang in the middle of this heart-rending tale.

Set in Tunisia, a married couple, Fares (Sami Bouajila) and Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah) along with their eleven-year-old son are part-way through their holiday when they unwittingly stumble into an Islamic-terrorist ambush that leaves their eleven-year-old fighting for his life in hospital and in desperate need of a liver transplant. With time running out the couple desperately look for a donor, but their search leads them down moral cross-roads and uncovers dark secrets that threaten to derail both their marriage and their son’s life.

Belying his lack of experience as director, Barsaoui appears to be in total control of his craft and deftly weaves plenty of subtextual commentary into the fabric of this compelling drama. Most notably, patriarchy within an Arab-world context is explored as the couple’s progressive ideals lock horns with Tunisia’s “archaic” laws. It’s a touchy subject to breach, but Barsaoui skilfully juggles this along with a minefield of other issues with minimal fuss and a pin-sharp tone.

It’s a style that appears to be straight out of the Asghar Farhadi film-book (A Separation, Everybody Knows) and A Son’s wonderfully focussed form is similarly achieved utilising little in the way of flamboyant cinematic embellishments; the musical score is sparse but effective, the cinematography is understated but beautiful, and the screenplay never succumbs to needless histrionics. Barsaoui (who definitely seems to be a talent worth keeping an eye on) appears to know exactly how to use subtlety to his advantage, and is aided by two fantastic leads who offer solid performances. Bouajila, in particular, cuts the pained figure of a man desperately in search for where his loyalties lie. But Barsaoui’s evenhanded script is careful not to lose sight of Meriem, a strong female character, who stands to lose not only her son but a husband as well.

A Son is an exciting and understatedly complex debut from a fresh voice in Arab cinema and is a movie that deserves your attention.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.


I Am Woman

Verdict: A mildly entertaining biopic that hits a few flat notes.

At the beginning of I am Woman, a young fresh-faced Australian, Helen Reddy, exits a New York tube station past an advertisement depicting a young sixties house-wife smiling next to a bottle of tomato sauce with the words “Even I can open it”. Blink and you’ll miss it, but the brief shot is supposed to set the tone of the film. However, although the film is about a woman who’s titular song put a rocket under the women’s rights movement, I Am Woman is, disappointingly, not the feminist film you might imagine. Rather, it focusses on Helen Reddy’s career—a nut-and-bolts portrayal of the Aussi songstress. And if you want to see a film about Helen Reddy the diva, rather than Helen Reddy the feminist, then this is your film.

Portrayed as a mild-mannered but strong-willed woman, Tilda Cobham-Hervey (Hotel Mumbai) gives a determined, if somewhat patchy performance as the doe-eyed Aussie. Alone in the big smoke, a toddler in tow, and only a few dollars to her name, I Am Woman traces the professional arc of Reddy’s career and gives ample time to show off her many hits.

Evan Peters (American Animals) slithers into frame as Helen’s husband—a roguish coke-snorting talent-manager whose self-interest threatens their relationship. It’s a train-wreck you can see a mile off but provides the perfect spring-board for the film to explore Reddy’s relationship with woman’s rights. Or, at least it would have, had writer Emma Jensen‘s clunky screenplay taken the time to explore it with more vigour. It’s a shame, especially given Jensen’s superb feminist-slanted writing in the recent Mary Shelley biopic.

Despite these missteps, the film just manages to hold itself together thanks in part to high production values and some very well-considered cinematography. However, Reddy’s depiction as the flag-bearer of woman’s rights is sadly lost within this safe and formulaic biopic. I Am Woman is a serviceable and mildly entertaining film, yes, but it still feels like an opportunity missed.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.