25 October 2012 | robert-temple-1
Mihaileanu gets better and better
Every time I see one of Radu Mihaileanu's amazing films I think he cannot make a better one than that, and then he does. This is probably the best yet. The story is set in an anonymous North African location, but the film was shot in a wild and remote village in Morocco somewhere in the vicinity of Marrakesh. As usual, many of the supporting actors seem to be indigenous local inhabitants. The film was shot in Arabic, but it seems that in France the dialogue was dubbed into French, whereas the English language DVD has the original Arabic dialogue with English subtitles, which is thus more authentic. The lead actress, of magical beauty and talent, is Leila Bekhti. She is of Algerian descent but was born in France. The actress who plays her sister Loubna/Esmeralda, Hafsia Herzi, was also born in France and is of mixed Tunisian and Algerian descent. Bekhti's vicious and unbalanced mother-in-law is played by Hiam Abbass, an Israeli Arab who has acted in 65 films. Mihaileanu has been very clever to find these amazing actresses, who are all completely convincing as locals who inhabit the small village where the story is set. This is a film about women who rebel against the oppressive customs of their lazy, and often brutal, husbands, who justify their indolence and oppression of their wives by 'tradition', or sometimes by unconvincing references to their religion. For hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years, the women of the village have brought the village's water in buckets from the spring ('source' in French, hence the title). The spring is high up the mountain slope behind the village, and the pathway is very rough and difficult. Many of the women have had miscarriages because they slipped and fell carrying the buckets of water while they were pregnant. We see an instance of this near the beginning of the film. While the women exhaust themselves and lose their babies by these exertions, the idle husbands sit on a small terrace sipping mint tea all day long because they have no jobs. It has never occurred to any of them to fetch the water or assist his wife. They just sit there, lazy slobs that they are. And if a baby dies, so what. The situation becomes intolerable to her, so Leila Bekhti rebels, supported by the aged widow called Vieux Fusil (Mrs. Rifle in the subtitles), magnificently portrayed by the actress Biyouna, who is a true native Algerian. Bekhti persuades other women in the village to go on 'love strike' by denying their rampant husbands their nightly sex. Many of the women get beaten, and some get raped when the husbands become furious and violent. Bekhti is secretly supported by her own husband, who genuinely loves her, and he sneaks out at night to carry some buckets of water down from the spring himself, the only man in the village who ever does so. He does this on the quiet because he is afraid the other men might attack him violently if they knew that he had done 'women's work'. One gets a very good idea why nothing ever happens in North Africa by way of business development, since there appears to be no initiative amongst the men, who are mostly seen to be arrogant, spoiled, pompous, querulous, and many of them are very violent indeed, almost psychopathically so. An Imam lectures the women that it says in the Koran that a man should beat his wife if she is disobedient. However, Bekhti, who is the only woman in the village who can read, quotes to the old Imam rival suras from the Koran and a Hadith ('Sayings of the Prophet') text which crush his arguments, so that he becomes dejected and ceases to oppose them. Many of the men of the village organise a scheme to renounce their wives and get new, obedient and excessively religious wives to come in and take their place. But the Imam ends his support for this scheme after Bekhti defeats him in her theological arguments. One of the most strenuous opponents of the women is Nissam, the son of Biyuona. She fearlessly berates him, tells him he is a good for nothing, and eventually throws him out of the house. This film tackles head-on the problems of the oppression of women and religious fanaticism in the Muslim world in North Africa. One of the remarkable aspects of the film is that the women communicate their stories and grievances by improvising songs rather than by speaking, which seems to be a local custom. They repeatedly shame their men by out-singing them. This is an extremely profound and very deep examination of life in a remote ethnic community, and a story of great courage. The film is both extremely emotional and deeply disturbing. It is never possible to watch a Mihaileanu film without being both shaken and stirred. It is another triumph for that brilliant director, a Paris resident of Romanian origin, who is certainly one of the finest film directors working in Europe today.