A family weekend in southern Tunisia turns into a nightmare in A Son (Bik Eneich/Un fils), the striking feature debut from Mehdi M. Barsaoui. This story about a father whose entire world comes apart after his son is gravely injured in a terrorist shootout in the desert smartly casts one of the world’s best thespians, 2006 Cannes best actor winner (for Indigenes) Sami Bouajila, in the lead as it probes delicate questions of parenthood, masculinity and personal ego within an Arab-world context. This Venice Horizons premiere was somehow overlooked by Toronto but will bow at the London fest next month. It is also accessible enough to merit a look from distributors interested in solid art house dramas.
A Son is specifically set in the late summer of 2011, over six months after the Jasmine Revolution and the fall of Ben Ali but before the death, in October, of Gadaffi, the leader of Libya, right next door. The French-educated Fares (Bouajila) and his wife, Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah, also terrific), are well-off, upper-middle-class Tunisians who would consider themselves quite liberal. Fares is a CEO of a sales business and Meriem is the new HR manager of a big company in the Middle East. They drive an expensive Range Rover, laugh about dirty jokes, drink alcohol and like to have a good time. Aziz (Youssef Khemiri, cute), their 11-year-old son, is clearly a happy and well-adjusted kid. All this information is conveyed in a prologue that, while entertaining, feels just a tad too much like making sure all these things can be ticked off a list.
An exciting debut from a new voice in Arab cinema.
The film proper kicks off when the three go on a weekend trip to scenic Tataouine in the southeast (which was George Lucas’ inspiration for the name of Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine). But suddenly, armed Islamist rebels interrupt their idyllic drive through the desert. Though Fares manages to turn their car around relatively quickly, Aziz is still gravely wounded when a bullet penetrates their car and then his liver.
(Spoilers in the following two paragraphs.) At the local hospital, the kind head surgeon (Noomen Hamda, also in the fellow Venice title The Scarecrows) tells both parents they need to get tested to see who is the most compatible donor for a liver transplant. (Putting Aziz on a waiting list for a new liver would take way too much time, it is explained, because use of anonymous donors is frowned upon in Tunisia, an Islamic country.) This forces Fares and Meriem to face the past, as a DNA test subsequently reveals that Fares isn’t the biological father of Aziz, which automatically disqualifies him for the transplant. To make matters even more complicated, Meriem doesn’t have the same blood type as her son, making rejection of her liver also very likely.
These revelations would be enough for a disease-of-the-week type melodrama, and one subplot — involving Fares’ dealings with a shady character (Slah Msaddak) who offers a highly illegal and disturbing way to quickly find a new liver — feels like it belongs in exactly that kind of film. It is also the only thread involving characters that get their own, separate scenes. This means the compact Fares-Meriem-Aziz family unit occasionally disappears, which dilutes A Son’s otherwise laser-sharp focus on the clan’s complex and constantly changing family dynamics.
Indeed, the film’s single biggest asset is Barsaoui’s exploration of the emotional ripple effects of the initial revelation that no one in the family saw coming. The way in which the rookie writer-director modulates the shock waves and articulates the questions that start to bubble up is riveting to watch. Bouajila, who for years has had the title of most underrated major acting talent in Europe sewn up, beautifully plays the anger, confusion and wounded pride of a man whose heart and head might tell him to do very different things. Being simultaneously a husband, a father and a man can be a lot of work, but what if one or more of these roles are being called into question or become mutually incompatible? Bouajila’s unassuming yet intelligent performance takes viewers right into this minefield of questions.
The pic’s specifically upper-middle-class Tunisian context, which is supposedly liberal and “modern” — as one of the characters calls it — also comes in for scrutiny here. So does, to an extent, the impact of religious traditions on established medical practices, which was also a theme in the Tunisian feature Beauty & the Dogs. Indeed, in both films, turquoise-colored hospital corridors are the coolly anonymous backdrops of despair. The specific post-revolution context makes the pain feel even more brutal here: The recent fall of Ben Ali, who became president in 1987 thanks to a coup d’etat, filled the people with hope for a better future. But not only does the immediate future of Fares’ family look bleak because of Aziz’s hospitalization, but the ordeal reveals the extent to which the whole country is rooted in religious and cultural customs that won’t change overnight just because there’s a new president.
A late scene in which Fares goes to plead with a man (Mohamed Ali Ben Jemaa, aka rapper Dali Ben J) from the family’s past showcases Barsaoui’s gift for using the power of understatement. It’s a short scene and there is a lot at stake, and yet there are no histrionics. The two men face off. The next scene suggests who won. It also suggests Barsaoui has a bright future ahead of him as a director of dramas that expertly capture complex human emotions within their socio-cultural, historical and political context.
Production companies: Cinetelefilms, Dolce Vita Films, 13 Production, Metafora Production, Sunnyland Film Art Group, Shortcut Films, Jour2Fete
Cast: Sami Bouajila, Najla Ben Abdallah, Youssef Khemiri, Noomen Hamda, Qasim Rawane, Slah Msaddak, Mohamed Ali Ben Jemaa
Director-writer: Mehdi M. Barsaoui
Producers: Habib Attia, Marc Irmer, Chantal Fischer
Cinematography: Antoine Heberle
Production design: Sophie Abelkefi
Costume design: Randa Khedher
Editing: Camille Toubkis
Music: Amine Bouhafa
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Horizons)
In Darija Arabic, French