Aside from a near-fatal last act stumble, Judge Bill Gibron agrees that this is one of the best movies about the personal dynamic of the Arab/Israeli conflict ever created.
Culture shock, Syrian style.
Mona is finally getting married, yet her family is in turmoil. It seems her famous TV star husband resides in Syria and, as a resident of the Golan Heights, Mona is forbidden to be with him. Instead, she must wed this stranger at a border checkpoint, then leave for Damascus, never to return to Israel again. So while she gains a spouse and his extended clan, she loses her own relatives forever. Naturally such a final act is a big step for her parents and, as they prepare for the ceremony, they must deal with double-talking village elders, siblings both favored and forbidden, and the rising tension in the region over the recent death of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. As the time to drive to the border approaches, potential problems arise. The Israeli government has warned Mona's father Hammed that he cannot go. Doing so will violate his parole and send him back to jail (where he was a political prisoner). In addition, absent brother Hattem has returned with his Russian wife and he's not allowed to attend because of the shame he's brought to the family. It will be up to Mona's eldest sister Amal to set things right. She'll need a little help from the United Nations if Mona is ever going to see her famous fiancé and become The Syrian Bride.
It's such a shame that The Syrian Bride stumbles during its final half hour. Prior to this purposeful plot point, the movie is an amazing experience, something ever so surreal and slightly off kilter. This is a natural reaction to what is really a typical family dramedy, except we are not dealing with your typical clichéd characters or overdone formulaic storyline. Sure there is a wedding involved and, as members of the party get together to celebrate the event, the insular environment of the troubled Middle East begins to warp our world view. Suddenly, instead of a heartfelt interpersonal narrative with relationships redefined and long-simmering secrets finally revealed, we are transported to an Earthbound bit of ethnic science fiction. Because the Golan Heights represent such a collision of cultures, because the politics and positions of the governments involved prevent the simplest of actions from being completely easy, because the traditions of the Syrian people are so completely foreign to Western eyes, we feel like we've landed on a far-off distant planet. Everything here is rooted in ritual, from the number of sheep slaughtered for the pre-wedding feast to the pre-arranged particulars of the engagement. Watching these heretofore unknown concepts play out before us (as well as a few we know all too well) makes for a wildly engaging experience. Just as you think the traditions can't get any more twisted, along comes another intriguing ethnic tic to tide us over.
Such a look behind the veil of an otherwise hidden heritage is one of co-writer/director Eran Riklis's strongest points. The intriguing dynamic between the Syrians situated in Israel and their compatriots across the border really grabs us. As the residents of the Golan Heights seem perpetually on edge (and with good reason), their Damascus counterparts are happy go lucky. Even the dichotomy between the bride and groom is symbolic. She is the youngest daughter of a once jailed, now paroled dissident. He is the star of a sexy Syrian sitcom. The thought that individuals living in such a tenuous territory would face persecution and punishment is nothing new. That they would also produce a double-entendre laced show with obvious nods to adultery and promiscuity is something startling. The Syrian Bride is loaded with many of these marvelous juxtapositions, from the eldest daughter who defies her paternalistic husband to pursue a university education in social work, to the lawyer son who married a Russian bride and was immediately excommunicated by the town elders…and, as a result, by his own father as well. When The Syrian Bride stays inside this collision of civilizing concepts, we are whisked away on a telling trip of exploration and explanation, and the voyage is intriguing and exciting.
However, once we reach the border, everything falls apart. In fact, while many of the movie's best facets remain steadfast and consistent (the acting, the directing, and the writing), the situation becomes absolutely unbearable. Obviously meant to highlight the hideous bureaucracy that keeps the Middle East mired in violence, Mona is not allowed to leave Israel and marry her man because Syria will not sign off on her papers. Why? Well, they contain a new Israeli stamp that the Syrians do not recognize. As a young French U.N. director tries to work out a compromise, the scene just goes on and on and on. First the Jewish pencil pusher bails on taking responsibility. Then the Syrian guard takes a decidedly unwavering stance. Then they repeat their positions. Then they do it again. Frankly, this last-act acrimony almost completely destroys everything that came before. It's not that we aren't aware that such ideological snafus occur, and we aren't above watching a few moments of such a formality fiasco play out, but to go on for nearly 25 minutes? That's just too much. We feel the exasperation of the petite U.N. charge and wonder why anyone would ever go through this process. Even more confusing is the resolution. One character acts and, for a moment, we rejoice. Then we start to worry about the consequences and whether or not this last-ditch effort was really worth it. We never do learn the exact outcome (though one can be inferred for good and bad) and this leaves the lessons of The Syrian Bride anchorless in our mind. Instead of an ending that would have nailed all the previous peculiarities, we get a cinematic time suck.
Koch Lorber deserves a lot of credit for releasing this title. It is clearly a movie that will divide its audience. Yet film fans will have very little to complain about from a technical standpoint. The transfer here is fantastic, a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen dream. The colors are sharp, the details readily discernible, and the landscapes artistically perfection. The movie's image is so good in fact that we wonder why other, more prominent foreign films look so lousy. As for the sound scenarios, The Syrian Bride has a wonderfully evocative Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix. The music is ethereal and haunting, the dialogue a crystal clear collection of Arabic, Hebrew, English, Russian, and French. All but the Western conversations are offered in easy-to-read subtitles. As for extras, we get a nice film festival chat with actress Hiam Abbass (who played oldest daughter Amal), a revealing behind-the-scenes making-of (which included material cut from the final version of the film), and a stirring political performance piece—otherwise known as the intelligent and insightful full-length audio commentary by director Eran Riklis (moderated by Karen Durbin of The New York Times). It's a truly fascinating collection of supplementary material for what is a fine, if flawed, motion picture.
Had The Syrian Bride found a way to exit as effectively as it arrived, we'd have one of the best movies ever made about the pain of politics in love and other interpersonal endeavors. Instead, all that last-act border BS just doesn't cut it. It makes a marvelous movie merely above average. Frankly a subject as serious as this deserves better.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Commentary by director Eran Riklis
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