A Son

by Toby Woollaston

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.