‘Rehana Maryam Noor’: Film Review | Cannes 2021

Azmeri Haque Badhon plays a professor of medicine who teeters between fierce feminism and personal obsession in Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s second feature, the first Bangladeshi film in Cannes’ official selection.

The protagonist’s full name is in the film’s title — Dr. Rehana Maryam Noor — but its inherent dignity doesn’t hit home until the last shot. Up to then, this young assistant professor of medicine, a widow with a daughter in first grade, is simply the unbending teacher out of hell, Rehana. For starters, she flexes her moral muscle by expelling a med student for scribbling notes on the back of a ruler during an exam. But that’s just a warm-up for what happens when she stumbles across a professor abusing a student: She goes after him like a hungry dog attacking a bone.

The second feature from writer-director Abdullah Mohammad Saad (Live from Dhaka) is not only a chilling portrait of the psyche of an unbalanced woman, played with extraordinary intensity by newcomer Azmeri Haque Badhon. It is equally a bow of admiration to a woman who sticks to her guns and refuses to look the other way, like everyone else, in a messy case of sexual assault. Her bulldog tenacity makes her both a heroine and an object of pity, making her difficult for feminists to champion, but even more uncomfortable for the apologists of abuse.

Rehana Maryam Noor

The Bottom Line

A tightly woven psychological portrait bound to incite controversy.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Azmeri Haque Badhon, Afia Jahin Jaima
Director/screenwriter: Abdullah Mohammad Saad

1 hour and 47 minutes

Sexism is rife and blatant in the Bangladeshi medical college where Rehana works. Prof. Arefin (Kazi Sami Hassan) takes an easygoing approach to the students’ various misdeeds and lets them off with a slap on the wrist, whereas Rehana would prefer to cut off their heads. Wrapped in a white scarf that emphasizes her inner purity, she glares balefully at Annie, a student who emerges from Arefin’s office in tears. She senses something terrible has happened and wants to know more.

As the story progresses, so does Rehana’s unhealthy involvement in the affair. “I am a witness and I can’t remain silent.” She does her best to force Annie to report the prof to the school principal; when she refuses, Rehana decides to claim it was she who got raped. The important thing is to make him confess and resign, rendering it impossible for him to attack other college girls in the future.

Up to this point, most of the audience will be with her, though maybe with some reservations about her enthusiasm for a public hanging. But there are dark recesses in the young woman’s mind that turn the second half of the film into a breathless trip into female repression, anxiety and violence.

A big part of Rehana’s life revolves around her often neglected daughter Emu (a wonderful Afia Jahin Jaima), whom she affectionately calls “Mummy” while the little girl calls her “Mumma.” Emu already shows a strong streak of stubbornness that she has culled from Mumma, and their battle of wills becomes a heart-wrenching no-win contest. It’s increasingly clear that Rehana mirrors herself in the child and that their psychologies play off each other in an alarming way.

It could be said that there is no fixed point of view in the film’s shifting psychological and moral terrain, which overlap and challenge the viewer to look in two different directions at the same time. As Rehana’s brother desolately asks when he drops Emu off with Mumma, knowing that his sister is about to bitterly disappoint the child’s expectations, “Are you doing this for her or for yourself?”

Saad has an absolutely sure hand in directing Badhon and guiding her into higher octaves of the role as the drama grows and grows. He and DP Tumil Tamijul adopt strong technical choices, most noticeably the heavy azure blue cast given to every scene, a cold and off-putting color that seems to rob the scenes of life. Rehana’s one-track mind and obsessions are also reflected in keeping only the faces in the foreground in focus, while the background blurs together. Camerawork is handheld and very instinctive, and never completely stable.

Full credits

Production companies: Potocol, Metro Video

Cast:  Azmeri Haque Badhon, Afia Jahin Jaima, Afia Tabassum Borno, Kazi Sami Hassan, Saberi Alam

Director, screenwriter, editor: Abdullah Mohammad Saad

Producer: Jeremy Chua

Coproducers: Rajib Mohajan, Sydul Haque Khandaker

Executive producer: Ehsanul Haque Babu

Director of photography: Tuhin Tamijul

Production designer: Ali Afjal Uzzal

Casting: Yasir Al Haq

World sales: Films Boutique

1 hour and 47 minutes